Quiz: What Three Foods Should You Eat for a Healthy Heart?

The Physicians Committee
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Quiz: What Three Foods Should You Eat for a Healthy Heart?

By Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.

A diet rich in dark leafy green vegetables, berries, and beans earns high marks from cardiologists.

It’s hard to miss the rankings for best film, best album, and the best college basketball teams if you live, breathe, or sleep in America. One set of rankings that may not be on your radar, but should be, are the best foods for your heart.

A dozen of the nation’s top cardiologists teamed up to review the science behind today’s most popular food trends, from gluten-free diets to juice detoxes and coconut oil. The results? Tried-and-true leafy greens, berries, and plant proteins earn these doctors’ votes for foods to favor, while the other foods fall to the bottom of the heart-healthful list.

Plant-based foods, eaten whole, don’t steal as many headlines as Beyoncé, Adele, the cast of Moonlight, or our March Madness basketball brackets, but they are the equivalent of a nutrition Grammy or Oscar for breaking down arterial plaque, supporting healthy blood flow, and stabilizing blood sugar. Here’s how to eat more of them every day:

Leafy Greens: Aim for 3 daily servings

Imagine you’re at the airport and have 15 minutes to pass through security and board your plane. It’s a lot easier if you’re the only person in line at the terminal. Imagine having security detail to keep distractions and obstacles out of your way. Dark leafy greens duplicate this role and act like crowd control for your arteries. They relax your arterial walls, push out any barriers, like plaque, and convert oxygen more efficiently so it’s easier for your blood to make it from your heart to other areas of your body—in a short amount of time. This brings feelings to your fingers, feet, and toes. It keeps blood flowing to and from your heart and brain. It’s one reason leafy greens are at the center of heart patients’ and professional athletes’ diets. They circulate oxygen throughout the body efficiently and power performance. But since their benefits last for 48 hours, you should eat them every day.

Arugula, mesclun, and Swiss chard are green vegetables that convert inorganic nitrate to oxygen at the fastest rate, with celery, collard greens, green beans, kale, and spinach playing supportive roles. Asparagus, broccoli, green beans, kale, parsley, spinach, and zucchini contain lutein, a carotenoid that breaks down atherosclerotic plaque and supports healthy blood flow.

In addition to promoting cardiovascular function, green vegetables boost insulin function. The researchers find every 0.2 serving increase of leafy greens, the equivalent to an ounce or 1/5 cup of lettuce, depending on the variety, reduces type 2 diabetes risk by 13 percent. The miracle compound in green vegetables is fiber, which you’ll only get if you eat them whole.

Berries: Eat one cup each day

Berries are to fruit as dark leafy greens are to vegetables: superfoods. While berries rank third for the most consumed fruit in America, falling behind bananas and apples, they top the list for the No. 1 fruit to boost heart health and slash diabetes risk.

Women in the Nurses’ Health Study who consumed one cup of blueberries a few times each week reduced blood pressure by 7/5 mm Hg. This may explain why adults who consume the highest amount of antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables, especially blueberries and strawberries, slash their risk for a heart attack by one-third, or 32 percent.

In addition to lowering blood pressure, dark red, blue, and purple fruits and vegetables contain anthocyanins, an extension of flavonoids, or phytochemical antioxidants, which benefit the walls of the arteries. These purple-colored fruits and vegetables earn superfood status by exporting free radicals—cellular byproducts linked to aging, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and arthritis—from our bodies. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, red cabbage, red radishes, and eggplant are great sources.

Antioxidants work best in small doses, which you’ll find in fruits and vegetables, where there is virtually no limit to how much you can consume, but may create harm when consumed in large amounts, as found in mega-dose supplements. To reap the benefits, repeat the recommendation for leafy green vegetables and go straight to the source.

Plant Proteins: Favor lentils and beans, consume nuts in moderation 

The cardiovascular researchers found lentils and beans contain just as much protein, if not more, than meat, but contain fiber and virtually zero cholesterol and saturated fat.

Nuts are another heart-healthy food, but should be consumed in moderation due to their high calorie content. They provide complex carbohydrates and fiber, protein, vitamin E, minerals, antioxidants, and plant compounds that mimic cholesterol, which can help remove dangerous levels of low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, from the body. This is one reason nuts are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.

To benefit from the cholesterol-lowering effect of nuts, consume about 30 grams each day, the equivalent of a handful. To limit portion sizes, pair an ounce of Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, or pistachios with a piece of portable fruit, like an apple or orange, for a heart-healthy 250-calorie snack.

You’ll likely see dark green vegetables, berries, and beans claim future awards. In addition to promoting optimal heart health, the researchers found a whole food, plant-based diet creates a blueprint for reaching and maintaining a healthy body weight, metabolic function, and combines with exercise, stress management, and social connections to support a long, healthy life.