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Heart Health: Top 8 Foods and Nutrients

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, but it’s a chronic condition that is often preventable by making healthy choices throughout your lifetime -- including and especially regarding the foods you eat and the nutrients you get on a daily basis.

In fact, eating a healthy diet is one of the best ways to keep your heart in tip-top physical condition … but you may be wondering what a “healthy diet” actually entails.

Most people know that they should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables while cutting back on unhealthy fats, like trans fats. This is a good start, and your diet should include a wide array of fresh, unprocessed foods at its core, but if you’re looking for more specifics, check out the list below.

The foods and nutrients that follow are ideal for keeping your heart healthy, especially when combined with other heart-healthy habits like regular exercise, not smoking and not drinking too much alcohol.

8 Top Foods and Nutrients for a Healthy Heart

1. Fish Oil

Fish oil is a rich source of the omega-3 fats eicopentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA support your heart by helping to maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Omega-3 fatty acids also provide protection and maintenance of the healthy function of your body's cell.

You can get omega-3 fats from eating fish, but many types (especially larger, predatory fish) may contain high levels of mercury, PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants. If you are limiting your fish consumption due to contamination concerns, high-quality fish oil supplements are a safe alternative. Look for those that are ultra pure and independently tested for rancidity, mercury, PCBs, and EPA and DHA levels.

2. Olive Oil

Olive oil contains healthy monounsaturated fats, which have long been praised for their health benefits, including the ability to lower your bad cholesterol and risk of heart disease.

For instance, a new study from the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute in Florence found that women who ate at least three tablespoons of olive oil a day were 40 percent less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease during the eight-year study period than women who ate the least.1

Olive oil is also a rich source of antioxidant polyphenols, which are beneficial for heart health. When choosing olive oil, “extra virgin” or “virgin” varieties are the least processed and may be better for your health.

Virgin and extra-virgin olive oil contain more phenolics, which act as antioxidants and also have anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties, than more heavily processed oils.

One study even found that people’s blood vessels were healthier after eating a meal rich in high-phenolic olive oil (including dilating better to improve blood flow) than they were after eating low-phenolic olive oil, again suggesting virgin or extra-virgin varieties may be best for your health.2

3. CoQ10 Supplement

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a necessary component of every cell; the CoQ10 enzyme helps cells produce the energy they need to fuel your body. However, CoQ10 is not only known to support healthy energy levels, but also your cardiovascular system. Research suggests that CoQ10 is especially helpful for your heart health, and your heart contains some of the highest amounts of CoQ10 in your body.

It also functions as an antioxidant, helping to protect against oxidative stress caused by free radicals.

Your body naturally produces CoQ10, but tissue levels peak at age 20 and decline with age, particularly in your heart.

Due to increased awareness that many prescription drugs (such as statin cholesterol-lowering drugs, high-blood pressure drugs and antidepressants) may deplete the level of CoQ10 in your body, more people are turning to CoQ10 supplements to help maintain their heart health.

Meat and fish are dietary sources of CoQ10, but the amounts found in food are far less than what can be obtained from supplements.

4. Avocado

Another source of healthy monounsaturated fats, including oleic acid (the same type found in olive oil), avocados are a tasty addition to your heart-healthy diet.

Along with monounsaturated fats, they also contain beta-sitosterol, a plant sterol shown to reduce total and bad (LDL) cholesterol in 16 human studies.3 Researchers have also shown that people who ate an avocado every day for a week reduced their cholesterol by an average of 17 percent, with bad cholesterol levels and triglycerides, which are associated with heart disease, declining and good (HDL) cholesterol levels rising.4 Avocados also contain an array of phytonutrients, such as carotenoids, that may support heart health. According to the California Avocado Commission, the highest concentration of carotenoids is in the dark green part of the fruit closest to the peel.5 To make sure you’re getting this most beneficial section, nick the skin and peel it from the avocado, as opposed to scooping it out with a spoon.

Avocado is also a natural source of L-carnitine (see below).

5. L-Carnitine

L-carnitine is an amino acid derivative found in almost all of your body's cells. It’s essential for breaking down fats into energy, while also supporting your heart and healthy cholesterol levels.

In fact, your skeletal muscles, heart and other tissues all depend on L-carnitine to function properly.

L-carnitine is found in avocado and fermented soy foods like tempeh, as well as in animal products. However, animal products contain only small amounts of L-carnitine, making it difficult to get enough from diet alone. For this reason, a supplement can be taken to help support your cardiovascular health.

6. Garlic

If you love garlic you’re in luck, as this potent plant is excellent for your heart. Allicin, garlic’s active ingredient, produces hydrogen sulfide, a gas with many heart-protective qualities.

Specifically, research has shown that allicin may signal blood vessels to relax, increase blood flow and boost heart health, and as researchers noted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “The consumption of garlic is inversely correlated with the progression of cardiovascular disease.”6

To get the most benefits, however, garlic should be freshly crushed, not dried, processed or cooked. A recent study on rats from researchers at the Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine revealed that freshly crushed garlic helped rats’ hearts recover from a heart attack better than dried garlic.

While both reduced damage from lack of oxygen, the fresh garlic was better at restoring blood flow and protecting the heart from damage, most likely due to the presence of hydrogen sulfide, which is not present in dried, processed or cooked garlic.7

7. Grapefruit

A grapefruit a day may be enough to keep the heart doctor away, especially if it’s red grapefruit. Rich in polyphenols and antioxidants like vitamin C, both white and red grapefruits have been found to help lower cholesterol levels, including LDL cholesterol. However, red grapefruits have also been found to lower triglyceride levels, a type of fat in your blood that’s linked to hardening of the arteries, heart attack and heart disease.8

Grapefruit also contains pectin, a type of fiber that has been shown to protect against high cholesterol and hardening of the arteries in animal studies.9

8. Green Leafy Vegetables

Eating just about any vegetable is a wise choice for your heart, but green leafy vegetables like spinach, Swiss chard and romaine lettuce are a step above the rest. For instance, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that eating eight or more servings of fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, a day resulted in a more than 20 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease compared to eating less than three.10

The antioxidants in green leafy vegetables also help protect heart rate flexibility, helping to reduce your risk of heart disease.11 This is important as decreased flexibility in heart rate, such as can occur during exposure to air pollution, can trigger heart problems. Researchers concluded that higher intake of green leafy vegetables may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Remember, heart disease is often preventable through a healthy diet and exercise. Eating a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods -- with a focus on fresh, unprocessed vegetables, fruits and lean proteins -- can lower your risk of heart disease and its associated risk factors like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and excess weight. Taking appropriate high-quality supplements may also help to further support your heart health.

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1. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2010 Dec 22.
2. Journal of the American College of Cardiology 2005; 46:1864-1868.
3. The American Journal of Medicine Volume 107, Issue 6, Pages 588-594, December 1999.
4. “The Avocado Advantage” August 14, 2000.
5. California Avocado Commission “Heart Health: Get the Good Fat With California Avocados”.
6. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2007 Nov 13;104(46):17977-82.
7. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2009 Aug 12;57(15):7137-44.
8. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2006 Mar 8;54(5):1887-92.
9. Clinical Cardiology 1988 Sep;11(9):597-600.
10. Annals of Internal Medicine June 19, 2001 vol. 134 no. 12 1106-1114.
11. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89: 778-786, 2009.