Spare a thought for your heart. It beats away, day and night, without you even noticing it. But there are some surprisingly simple ways you can give this hard-working organ a helping hand, and it all starts with what you eat.
Having a good diet can help manage blood pressure and reduce cholesterol - meaning you’ll be less likely to develop coronary heart disease in the future. But did you know that some superfoods work even harder when it comes to keeping your heart healthy?
We’ve got a whole alphabet full of foods packed with extra heart-protecting properties - and we’ve explained why each of them deserve a place on your shopping list.
Maligned for years for their high fat content, avocados are no longer seen as the enemy. In fact, this nutritious fruit has a long list of heart-healthy properties. The fat in avocados is monounsaturated, linked to a lower risk of coronary disease, while the green flesh contains an amino acid called glutathione, further boosts your defences against heart disease. And as if that’s not good enough, avocados are also rich in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that will keep your skin in good condition too.
Don’t leave the fruit and vegetable aisle without a punnet of blueberries in your basket. Lower in calories than other fruits but just as high in fibre, a Harvard study found that women who ate more than three servings per week had a 32 percent lower risk of having a heart attack. And it’s all thanks to the flavonoids which give the berries their deep purple colours. Called anthocyanins, they’re known to boost the circulatory system and may even help stop plaque building up in the arteries.
With a name that means ‘strength’ in the Mayan language, Aztec warriors were known to nibble on chia seeds for endurance before battle. They may well have been onto something because this tiny seed is mighty when it comes to strengthening your heart. Chia seeds are known to reduce oxidative stress, meaning you’re less likely to develop atherosclerosis - a disease where plaque builds up around your arteries.
Switch from milk chocolate to dark and you’ll be getting an indulgent treat that’s actually good for your heart. Dark chocolate contains high levels of flavanols which not only boost your antioxidant levels but can lower blood pressure, improve blood flow and make blood platelets less sticky and therefore less likely to clot. Sadly, the same can’t be said for milk chocolate - researchers found the presence of dairy reduced the absorption of flavanols into the bloodstream.
Extra virgin olive oil
It’s long been known that populations around the world who eat a diet rich in olive oil have exceptionally low rates of heart disease. But while all olive oil is low in monosaturated fat and high in oleic acid (which can reduce the kind of inflammation that may lead to coronary disease), extra virgin olive oil has another trick up its sleeve. Less processed than even the virgin variety, extra virgin oil is more stable at high temperatures so that even fried vegetables can retain more of their heart-boosting nutrients.
Just one cup of green tea per day could be enough to help keep your heart healthy. A study found that sipping a cup of the beverage, traditionally drunk in China and Japan, widened the artery which runs from the shoulder to the elbow by 4 percent within just 30 minutes, reducing the risk of blood clots from forming.
You may be avoiding it if you’re on a low-sugar diet, but honey has some phenomenal heart-protecting benefits that earn it its place in your food cupboard. Honey contains flavonoids, polyphenols and other antioxidant micronutrients which all work together to reduce inflammation and can stop the build-up of plaque in your arteries.
Using spices such as turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon to flavour your food is a tasty way to cut down on salt, too much of which can lead to high blood pressure. But the heart-friendly benefits don’t end there because most Indian spices contain powerful antioxidants too. Cinnamon can improve coronary blood flow, while cardamom can lower blood pressure. But the jewel in the crown of Indian spices has to be turmeric. This distinctive yellow spice is full of curcumin, known to improve cardiovascular health by increasing blood circulation and preventing blood clots.
If you’ve ever had a vegetable box delivered, chances are you’ll have found one of these knobbly-looking tubers at the bottom. Tastier than a carrot, but as satisfying as a potato, Jerusalem artichokes pack an even bigger nutritional punch when it comes to heart health. Just one serving can provide you with 643mg of potassium - something that’s especially beneficial for people at risk for high blood pressure as it can help manage sodium levels in the bloodstream.
While all green, leafy vegetables contain high levels of inflammation-fighting Omega 3, kale has been hailed as the queen of greens when it comes to your heart. Whether steamed, stir-fried or baked into crispy chips, kale has even more heart-healthy flavonoids than spinach - a massive 45 different varieties in all - each with a variety of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. One of the most nutrient-dense foods in the world, two of the flavonoids found in relatively large amounts in kale, quercetin and kaempferol, have powerful cardioprotective effects and have been found to lower blood pressure too.
Inexpensive and delicious, legumes like beans, chickpeas and lentils are a great source of plant-based protein. But they also contain a large number of additional nutrients that help reduce your risk of heart disease too. All types of legumes contain polyphenols, terpenoids, and anthocyanin which can reduce the inflammation and oxidative stress that contribute to heart disease. But choose darker coloured varieties such as red kidney beans or black beans for the biggest boost of these heart-benefiting phytochemicals.
While all cow’s milk is calcium-rich and full of protein, switching to organic milk could see you getting twice the amount of heart-healthy Omega 3 fats than your normal brand. But if you’re not drinking cow’s milk for ethical or dietary reasons, a good alternative may be oat milk, according to the British Heart foundation. That’s because oat milk contains beta glucans, known for helping people to maintain normal cholesterol levels.
One of nature’s most potent medicinal plants is growing all around us - and this might make you think twice before you banish it from the garden. Well established for being good for the kidneys due to its natural diuretic properties, this has a knock-on benefit for the heart as it can help lower blood pressure. It also contains a large amount of potassium which can reduce tension in your arteries. Don’t fancy getting stung? Nettles are also available in ready-made tea bags.
Omega 3 fish oils
Eating a diet rich in Omega 3 fatty acids is one of the best ways to protect your heart. They’re known to reduce the risk of abnormal heartbeats and can slow down the build-up of plaque in the arteries. While eating fish is a great way to get your Omega 3, what should you do if you don’t like the taste, are worried about high mercury levels - or just have ethical concerns about the way fish are farmed? Taking a high-quality Omega 3 fish oil could be your answer.
Used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years (and it even gets a mention in the bible) pomegranates have recently been granted superfood status, and it’s all thanks to the polyphenols contained within its juicy seeds. These powerful antioxidants are thought to prevent fatty deposits from building up around our arteries. A great excuse for adding them liberally to your green salads or smoothies.
Just as delicious as couscous, quinoa has some unique properties when it comes to cardiovascular health. It contains large amounts of flavonoids, including quercetin and kaempferol, known for their anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Quinoa is also much higher in heart-healthy fibre than most grains - no wonder it’s one of the most popular health foods on the planet.
While drinking alcohol to excess is undoubtedly harmful, having the odd glass of red wine appears to actually benefit the heart. Red wine contains an antioxidant known as resveratrol which appears to prevent clots from developing inside the arteries and can help moderate cholesterol. So convinced of its benefits, cardiologist Dr William McCrea at the Great Western Hospital in Swindon actually prescribed red wine to 10,000 of his patients with heart issues. According to his study published in the express, Dr McCrea found it reduced the risk of a second heart attack by half.
From salmon to mackerel, all cold-water fish are low in fat and high in heart-protecting Omega 3 fatty acids. But sardines have some of the highest levels of them all - some 1.8g in a normal serving - and they’re also high in vitamin B12 which can help prevent damage to artery walls and stop a dangerous build-up of plaque. As if that wasn’t enough, they’re sustainable too.
Apart from being so deliciously fresh and juicy, there’s another reason to add tomatoes to your soups, salads or pasta sauces. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, the bright red carotene that gives the fruit its red hue. But this powerful antioxidant does more than just provide colour - it has been proven to reduce coronary heart disease by up to 26 percent, according to a study published by the Daily Mail. You don’t have to eat them raw to reap the benefits because, while cooking does lower the levels of vitamin C, this only makes the heart-friendly lycopene more available.
Unsalted almond butter
Switching your daily dose of nutty spread from peanut butter to unsalted almond butter could bring with it a raft of cardiovascular benefits. While both are similar in terms of calories, a serving of almond butter contains 25 percent more monounsaturated fat - a substance linked to both reduction in heart disease and better blood sugar control. It also contains nearly three times as much vitamin E which can stop plaque from narrowing your arteries.
Meaning ‘sour wine’ in French, vinegar in all its forms has been used for centuries to treat a wide range of medical problems. But apple cider vinegar appears to outshine them all when it comes to keeping your heart healthy. Drinking two teaspoons before breakfast has been shown to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, both of which have been linked to increased risk of heart attacks.
While all nuts contain vitamin E and fibre, both of which can help to lower bad cholesterol, walnuts should be top of your heart-healthy shopping list. They were found to have both higher levels and better-quantity antioxidants compared to other popular nuts and are particularly high in Omega 3 - the fatty acids that help protect your heart.
Extra sprouts on your garlic bulbs
Have a bulb of garlic that’s started sprouting green shoots? Don’t throw it away just yet. Several studies have shown that garlic can reduce harmful cholesterol by about 12 per cent, and inhibit the growth of new plaque in the arteries that can lead to heart attack or stroke. But garlic that’s been sprouted for five days appears to have significantly higher levels of antioxidants too.
Research by the American Heart Association has found that high blood pressure can be lowered by eating yoghurt. The study found that women who regularly ate yoghurt significantly lowered their risk of developing high blood pressure in the future. Steer clear of high-sugar varieties with a long list of ingredients whose names you don’t recognise. For an extra burst of antioxidants, choose a plain, unprocessed variety and flavour it yourself with fruit.
Succulent zucchini (otherwise known as courgette) is not only a tasty member of the squash family, it’s also one of the healthiest. Low-calorie and filled to bursting with free-radical mopping antioxidants, it has more potassium than a banana, so it can help to moderate your blood pressure and even counter the effects of too much sodium in your diet. And you don’t even need to peel it!