Despite a recent movement toward body positivity and neutrality, when we talk about “good” and “bad” foods as a society, we still tend to focus on whether they’ll make us gain weight or help us lose it. But there’s a lot more to the conversation than how many calories a specific food has, and when it comes to heart health, one thing is very clear: Not all foods are created equal.
Some foods are really good for your heart, some aren’t great (but not terrible either), and others are just flat-out bad. So, which foods should you be eating for better heart health, and which ones should you avoid? We chatted with cardiologists and nutritionists — here’s what to keep in mind.
The Best Foods For Heart Health
First, let’s focus on the positive — the foods you should load up on if you want to improve our heart health. They include:
Leafy green vegetables
We know, we know: The idea that you should eat leafy green vegetables is hardly a novel or exciting one. But most of us don’t get enough of them, and they’re crucial for heart health.
“Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, lettuce, kale, bok choy and collard greens are a key component for a heart-healthy diet, and something that most of us do not get enough of,” explained Dr. Sanjeev Aggarwal, a former chief of cardiac surgery who currently serves as medical adviser at Hello Heart. “Several studies have shown a reduced incidence of heart disease with increased green vegetable intake. Foods like spinach are heart-healthy superfoods as they’re high in potassium, folate and magnesium.”
Folate is a key vitamin for a healthy heart, he notes. “It helps break down homocysteine, an amino acid in our blood that can lead to a higher risk of heart disease.”
Salmon is an excellent food for heart health, too. “Salmon is a popular source of omega-3 fatty acids,” said Dr. Marianela Areces, a cardiologist with Pritikin Longevity Center. “Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown by research to have anti-inflammatory effects, decrease risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and have a positive effect in obesity and diabetes mellitus Type 2.”
Beans, cauliflower and lentils
Foods high in double fiber, like beans, cauliflower and lentils, can benefit the heart. “These foods have been shown to lower cholesterol,” Areces said.
These foods also contain plant sterols and stanols, which are naturally occurring compounds that look similar to cholesterol, and which studies have found can reduce cholesterol. Plant sterols and stanols can also be found in fruits like blueberries and apples.
Quinoa, oats and barley
Whole grains like quinoa, whole wheat, oats and barley are healthy carbohydrates that lower the risk of heart disease, Aggarwal said. “Quinoa is an excellent heart-healthy food option and is a great substitute for white rice. It’s not only rich in protein, but also rich in potassium and fiber — both of which help people maintain a healthy blood pressure and lower cholesterol.”
Another reason to eat avocados? Yes, please! “Avocados contain monounsaturated fats that can improve cholesterol and reduce inflammation,” Aggarwal said. “Several studies have demonstrated the positive effects of avocados in lowering the bad form of cholesterol (LDL) that leads to plaque build-up in the arteries and an increased risk of heart disease. Like quinoa, they can be effective when managing blood pressure and blood sugar levels due to their high amounts of fiber and potassium.”
Looking for something super-specific that will benefit the heart? Load up on walnuts. “Studies have shown that regular consumption of walnuts can decrease our LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol,” explained registered dietitian nutritionist Kylene Bogden.
The Worst Foods For Heart Health
Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad — and sadly, there are some really delicious foods out there that aren’t great for your heart. They include:
Processed meats can be really tasty (who doesn’t love a hot dog?) but they’re not very good for your heart. “Consuming even small amounts can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease,” Aggarwal said. “Processed meats are often high in unhealthy saturated fats. Even low-fat options tend to have high sodium levels, which can lead to high blood pressure.”
Cake, pies, cookies
Sorry, but all that sugar isn’t great for heart health. “These items are loaded with sugars as well as saturated and trans-fats,” Areces said. “A high-sugar diet is detrimental for our health in many different ways including elevating triglycerides, insulin levels and contributing to being overweight or obesity, which in turn can lead to pre-diabetes or diabetes. All of these are well-known risk factors for the development of heart disease.”
You may want to limit these treats on the cautious side of moderation. “Frying foods adds unhealthy trans fats and salt,” Aggarwal said. “Trans fats worsen a person’s cholesterol profile by raising the bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowering good cholesterol (HDL). Study participants who consumed larger amounts of fried food had higher risk for death from coronary artery disease, as reported in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.”
Foods labeled as reduced-fat or no-fat
Sounds counter-intuitive, right? But according to Aggarwal, these types of foods aren’t great for heart health. “Foods labeled as low or no-fat give the illusion of being healthy, but it may be just the opposite,” he said. “To maintain taste, as fat is taken out, more sugar is pumped in. Read food labels to see how many grams of sugar may have been added as a fat substitute. Many types of natural fats are healthy so no-fat is not necessarily healthier! Refined sugars and carbohydrates raise the risk of heart disease.”
If you think diet soda is the answer to your health woes, think again — these beverages may be calorie-free, but they aren’t doing amazing things for your heart. “While many turn to diet soda to improve their health, quite the opposite can be true with chronic consumption,” Bogden said. “Not only are artificial sweeteners more sweet than table sugar, causing you to crave and ingest more sugar, which can lead to chronic inflammation, but studies are starting to emerge suggesting that artificial sweeteners can harm our gastrointestinal balance, thus promoting inflammation and increasing our risk for disease.”
Anything super salty
If you’re consuming a lot of super-salty foods, beware. “A diet rich in sodium has harmful effects on blood pressure, kidney function and physiologic fluid regulation,” explained Dr. Vicken Zeitjian, a cardiologist. “Most processed foods and commercialized foods have high sodium content, so limited consumption is advised to help reduce risk of cardiovascular disease.”
A Word About Moderation
As the saying goes, “everything in moderation.” But does this apply to foods that are flat-out bad for heart health? “A healthy diet is all about moderation, and maintaining your heart health goes beyond your diet,” Aggarwal said. “People need to evaluate their lifestyle choices, exercise habits, stress levels and more to properly manage their heart health. In terms of your diet, you can certainly indulge in ‘bad’ foods occasionally, if it’s in moderation and balanced with other healthy lifestyle choices. Make indulgence the rare exception, not the rule.”
So there you have it: You can indulge in hot dogs and cookies this summer, just don’t go crazy. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to load up on the salmon and leafy green veggies!