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Heart disease is a leading killer in the U.S., but you don't have to live in fear of an attack. Eating these five foods can help you defend your heart
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., responsible for around 1 in 4 deaths each year.[i] But fear not -- you can greatly reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease through diet and lifestyle modifications like getting regular exercise and eating heart-healthy foods.
All five of the following superfoods are easy to incorporate into your meal plan and have been validated by peer-reviewed science to help protect your body's most important muscle. By selecting foods and supplements that support heart health, you lock in a critical piece of the longevity puzzle that can keep your heart happy for decades to come.
1. Omega-3 fats
The health benefits of consuming a diet rich in essential fatty acids are clearly established, including the boost these healthy fats provide to your heart. Omega-3 fats are so important to heart health that being deficient is associated with higher risk of cardiac mortality.[ii]
Conversely, eating foods that are high in omega-3 fats can help protect the heart from disease. A 2018 study found that consuming a diet with a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fats rapidly changes the fat composition of cardiac tissue, resulting in cardiac protection.[iii] For most people, this would mean cutting down on omega-6s while increasing omega-3s.
To ensure that your diet contains enough of these heart-healthy fats, include wild-caught cold-water fishes like salmon, tuna, herring and sardines two to three times per week.
Nuts such as almonds and walnuts (be sure and eat the paper-like skin around them, which has high concentrations of polyphenols) and flax and chia seeds provide vegetarian sources of these essential fats, as do organic soybeans. You can also find omega-3 fats in supplement form.
Curcumin is the primary polyphenol found in turmeric, the bright orange spice that is a staple in many South Asian dishes. A member of the ginger family of plants, Curcuma longa has long been studied for its beneficial effects on human health, particularly turmeric's anti-inflammatory properties and, more recently, its potential to benefit the heart.
Diabetics have a particular need to safeguard heart health, and curcumin may be a key ally in its defense. A study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry showed that supplementing with curcumin conferred protection from atherosclerotic heart disease to patients with Type 2 diabetes.[iv]
At least some of curcumin's amazing health benefits come from its ability to thin the blood and expand the arteries. Cooking with this pungent spice is easy and flavorful, with numerous ethnic dishes calling for the bright orange aromatic. Aim for around two tablespoons per day in your recipes, or supplement with a high-quality, preferably organic, supplement in liquid or capsule form.
3. Green tea
You might not think of your heart when you sip a relaxing cup of tea, but science has been considering the numerous ways that green tea can benefit your well-being. Don't stop at just one cup -- when it comes to protecting your heart, the more green tea you drink, the better.
A study of more than 40,530 Japanese adults found that individuals who consumed five or more cups of green tea each day had a 26% lower risk of death from heart attack than people who do not drink green tea.[vi][vii]
A 2015 meta-analysis arrived at similar findings, determining that just one cup of green tea per day was associated with a 5% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and 4% lower risk of all-cause mortality.[viii]
Catechins, the potent natural flavanols that impart much of green tea's antioxidant punch, are credited with providing some of green tea's beneficial effects on cardiovascular health. Catechins' antioxidant power has been shown to reduce LDL oxidation, effectively reducing heart disease risk from associated oxidative stress.[ix]
4. Magnesium-rich foods
Protecting your heart begins by ensuring that you consume adequate amounts of essential daily nutrients. Magnesium, a mineral involved in hundreds of biochemical functions in your body, helps maintain healthy heart function by normalizing blood pressure and keeping your heart's rhythm beating steadily. Conversely, magnesium deficits are linked to clogged arteries and sudden cardiac arrest.[x]
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Biomedical Science found that individuals with higher dietary intakes of magnesium and the amino acid taurine had significantly lower incidences of heart disease mortality.[xi] Foods that are rich in magnesium include dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and avocados.
Supporting your body with a high-quality magnesium supplement has also proven beneficial to the heart. A 2005 study on the clinical and metabolic effects of oral magnesium supplementation found that doses of 300 mg daily for 30 days were effective in achieving cardioprotective effects in some patients.[xii]
You may not think of chocolate as a health food, but when it comes to dark chocolate, there's a growing body of evidence showing that it not only makes your Valentine smile, it can help keep your heart happy, too. Rich in flavanols, which are found in high concentrations in grapes, dark berries, tea and cocoa, chocolate made with at least 70% cocoa is a tasty and heart-healthy snack.
A research team from the University of Cambridge evaluated the association of chocolate consumption with the risk of developing cardiometabolic disorders. They conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and observational studies and found that levels of chocolate consumption seem to be associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders.[xiii]
It's never too late to add a few large squares of decadent dark chocolate to your diet. A 2012 study of patients with congestive heart failure found that daily consumption of two flavanol-rich chocolate bars per day acutely improved vascular function, an effect that was sustained after daily consumption over a four-week period.[xiv]
There are more than 1,600 abstracts with cardioprotective research on GreenMedInfo.com, the world's most widely referenced, evidence-based natural medical resource.
[ii] Nipon Chattipakorn, Jongkolnee Settakorn, Petnoi Petsophonsakul, Padiphat Suwannahoi, Pasuk Mahakranukrauh, Somdet Srichairatanakool, Siriporn C Chattipakorn. Cardiac mortality is associated with low levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the heart of cadavers with a history of coronary heart disease. Nutr Res. 2009 Oct;29(10):696-704. PMID: 19917448
[iii] Melissa Desnoyers, Kim Gilbert, Ness Madingou, Marc-André Gagné, Caroline Daneault, Christine des Rosiers, Guy Rousseau. A high omega-3 fatty acid diet rapidly changes the lipid composition of cardiac tissue and results in cardio-protection. Can J Physiol Pharmacol. 2018 May 28. Epub 2018 May 28. PMID: 29806983
[iv] Somlak Chuengsamarn, Suthee Rattanamongkolgul, Benjaluck Phonrat, Rungsunn Tungtrongchitr, Siwanon Jirawatnotai. Reduction of atherogenic risk in patients with type 2 diabetes by curcuminoid extract: a randomized controlled trial. J Nutr Biochem. 2014 Feb ;25(2):144-50. Epub 2013 Nov 6. PMID: 24445038
[v] Nobuhiko Akazawa, Youngju Choi, Asako Miyaki, Yoko Tanabe, Jun Sugawara, Ryuichi Ajisaka, Seiji Maeda. Curcumin ingestion and exercise training improve vascular endothelial function in postmenopausal women. Nutr Res. 2012 Oct ;32(10):795-9. Epub 2012 Oct 15. PMID: 23146777
[vi] Harvard Health Publishing, Heart Health, Green tea may lower heart disease risk, https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/green-tea-may-lower-heart-disease-risk
[vii] JAMA. 2006 Sep 13;296(10):1255-65. doi: 10.1001/jama.296.10.1255. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/green-tea-may-lower-heart-disease-risk
[viii] Jun Tang, Ju-Sheng Zheng, Ling Fang, Yongxin Jin, Wenwen Cai, Duo Li. Tea consumption and mortality of all cancers, CVD and all causes: a meta-analysis of eighteen prospective cohort studies. Br J Nutr. 2015 Jul 23:1-11. Epub 2015 Jul 23. PMID: 26202661
[ix] Norie Suzuki-Sugihara, Yoshimi Kishimoto, Emi Saita, Chie Taguchi, Makoto Kobayashi, Masaki Ichitani, Yuuichi Ukawa, Yuko M Sagesaka, Emiko Suzuki, Kazuo Kondo. Green tea catechins prevent low-density lipoprotein oxidation via their accumulation in low-density lipoprotein particles in humans. Nutr Res. 2016 Jan ;36(1):16-23. Epub 2015 Nov 3. PMID: 26773777
[x] Harvard Health Publishing, Heart Health, Magnesium helps the heart keep its mettle, https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/magnesium-helps-the-heart-keep-its-mettle
[xi] Yukio Yamori, Takashi Taguchi, Hideki Mori, Mari Mori. Low cardiovascular risks in the middle aged males and females excreting greater 24-hour urinary taurine and magnesium in 41 WHO-CARDIAC study populations in the world. J Biomed Sci. 2010;17 Suppl 1:S21. Epub 2010 Aug 24. PMID: 20804596
[xii] N Cohen, I Alon, D Almoznino-Sarafian, R Zaidenstein, J Weissgarten, O Gorelik, S Berman, D Modai, A Golik. Metabolic and clinical effects of oral magnesium supplementation in furosemide-treated patients with severe congestive heart failure. J Ethnopharmacol. 2005 Oct 3;101(1-3):249-57. PMID: 10875034
[xiii] Adriana Buitrago-Lopez, Jean Sanderson, Laura Johnson, Samantha Warnakula, Angela Wood, Emanuele Di Angelantonio, Oscar H Franco. Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2011 ;343:d4488. Epub 2011 Aug 26. PMID: 21875885
[xiv] Andreas J Flammer, Isabella Sudano, Mathias Wolfrum, Rajeev Thomas, Frank Enseleit, Daniel Périat, Priska Kaiser, Astrid Hirt, Matthias Hermann, Mauro Serafini, Antoine Lévêques, Thomas F Lüscher, Frank Ruschitzka, Georg Noll, Roberto Corti. Cardiovascular effects of flavanol-rich chocolate in patients with heart failure. Eur Heart J. 2012 Sep ;33(17):2172-80. Epub 2011 Dec 15. PMID: 22173910