NEWS

9 Heart-Healthy Foods to Eat During American Heart Month

Key Takeaways

  • 1 in 4 deaths in the United States every year are from cardiovascular disease. It’s the leading cause of death in Americans.
  • February is American Heart Month, which raises awareness about heart disease and ways to prevent it.
  • Including heart-healthy foods and drinks in your diet is one way that you can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

February is American Heart Month, the goal of which is to raise awareness about cardiovascular health. The observance is an important one because heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans, accounting for one in every four deaths each year.

While there are some heart disease risk factors you can’t control, like having a family history of the disease, being of certain ethnic/racial groups, and being older, there are changes you can make in your lifestyle to promote heart health.

Heart Healthy Foods to Eat During American Heart Month - Illustration by Hilary Allison

Verywell / Hilary Allison

Nutrition for Heart Health

Along with quitting tobacco, living an active lifestyle, and maintaining a weight that is best for your body, there are certain dietary choices that can have a profound effect on the health of your heart.

Many of the foods that are part of a balanced eating plan support cardiovascular health, such as:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes and nuts
  • Non-fried fish and seafood
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Lean meats that are minimally processed

There are also some foods and beverages that you should limit in your diet, such as:

  • Added sugars
  • Fried foods
  • Saturated fats
  • Large amounts of added salt (e.g., in processed foods)
  • Alcohol

Here are 9 foods and drinks that research has shown benefit your cardiovascular health. While it’s great to include them in your diet all year long, American Heart Month is a great time to start eating more of them.

Walnuts

Shelled walnut halves on a lime green background.

Markus Winkler/Unsplash

Walnuts are nutritious, versatile nuts. You can use them as a topping for your oatmeal, add them to a homemade trail mix, or enjoy a few on their own as a quick snack.

Along with being a natural source of vital heart health-supporting nutrients like magnesium and polyphenols, walnuts are the only tree nut that is also an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—a plant-based omega-3 essential fatty acid.

Since dietary ALA intake is linked to a reduced risk of early death from cardiovascular disease (CVD) and coronary heart disease, walnuts are a great addition to a heart-healthy diet.

A 2021 study published in Circulation found that when people included approximately 30–60 grams of walnuts (or around 14–28 walnut halves) in their daily diet, they had a significant reduction of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (also called “bad” cholesterol). On average, their LDL levels went down by 4.3 mg/dL.

Data from another 2021 study published in Nutrients showed that people who ate nuts (including walnuts) at least five times a week were 19% less likely to experience a stroke and 24% less likely to die from CVD.

This research supports the notion that making walnuts a regular part of your diet may help lower your cholesterol levels and, in turn, support your heart health.

Sorghum

Close up of sorghum grains.

MirageC/Getty

Eating whole grains instead of refined grains has many positive heart-health outcomes.

Whole grains are linked to improved levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, hemoglobin A1c, and C-reactive protein. You can experience these health benefits even if you don’t have a history of risk factors for CVD.

Sorghum is a unique whole grain choice. It’s a natural source of important heart-healthy nutrients like plant-based protein and magnesium.

Studies have shown that plant-based diets—especially when they’re rich in high-quality plant foods such as whole grains like sorghum—are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular outcomes.

The ancient grain also naturally contains substances that have anti-inflammatory and antiatherogenic activities (called phenolic compounds).

Sorghum is also a gluten-free grain, making it a fantastic option way for people with celiac disease to support their heart health.

Dishes that are staples in African and Asian cuisine often feature sorghum, but it’s becoming more popular all over the world as a side dish or even popped like popcorn for a snack.

True Teas

A white person's hands holding a glass tea pot pouring tea into a small glass tea cup.

Vlada Karpovich/Pexels

Whether you like it hot or iced, making true tea (from the Camellia sinensis plant) a part of your day has a range of health benefits.

According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, drinking tea can slow the natural decrease in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (or “good” cholesterol) that occurs as you get older.

In the study, the health of more than 80,000 people was evaluated over six years. The regular tea drinkers experienced slower decreases in their HDL cholesterol levels, which could result in an overall 8% reduced risk of developing CVD.

A 2020 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that people who sipped on true tea (including green, black, or oolong) at least three times a week had about a 20% reduced risk of developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease compared to people who drank tea fewer than three times a week.

In the same study, habitual tea drinkers experienced a 22% reduced risk of experiencing early death from heart disease.

Green tea is a particular powerhouse. It contains many plant compounds (like EGCG) that have been shown to reduce inflammation, regulate blood pressure, and even lower cardiovascular mortality rates.

Don’t like green tea? Black, green, and white teas are also full of antioxidants that fight chronic inflammation.

Low-Fat Dairy

A glass of milk, half full, sitting outside.

Pixabay/Pexels

Low-fat dairy is included in many formal diets geared toward heart health, including the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) and Mediterranean diets.

Dairy is a source of minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium that your body needs to support cardiovascular health.

A 2016 study found that low-fat dairy products were associated with a reduced risk of high blood pressure (hypertension). Another 2016 study showed that drinking low-fat or fat-free milk was linked to a reduced risk of having a stroke.

Low-fat dairy may also help the body fight chronic inflammation, a condition that is linked to an increased risk of heart problems like coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral vascular disease, and cardiomyopathy.

According to a 2020 study published in the journal Gut Microbes, consuming dairy food or proteins from milk did not increase inflammation. In some cases, it actually led to a reduction in at least one biomarker of inflammation. 

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), adults should aim to have 2–3 servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy foods every day.

If you are lactose intolerant, you can still get the heart health benefits of dairy by including lactose-free milk, yogurt with live and active cultures, and hard cheeses in your diet.

Lentils

A large bowl of lentils on a pale pink background.

César Hernández/Unsplash

Packed with antioxidants, plant-based protein, fiber, and nutrients like magnesium and potassium, these tiny pulses are a powerful way to support your heart health.

Several studies have linked lentils to a lower risk of CVD, largely due to their bioactive compounds.

100% Orange Juice

A glass of orange juice surrounded by whole and sliced oranges on a white background.

Bru-nO/Pixabay

You probably know that you can give your immune system a boost of vitamin C by drinking a glass of 100% orange juice, but the drink can also help your heart.

A 2017 study found that drinking 100% citrus juice might be linked to a lower risk of CVD and ischemic stroke.

In 2021, a study found that people who had higher intakes of a bioflavonoid found in citrus called hesperidin had better blood lipid values and blood pressure levels than people who had lower intakes of the substance.

The people with higher hesperidin intakes also appeared to experience less oxidative stress and showed fewer inflammatory markers than people who didn’t get as much of the bioflavonoid.

Salmon

Two pieces of raw salmon on parchment paper.

Caroline Attwood/Unsplash

Research has shown that eating cold-water oily fish like salmon supports your cardiovascular health.

In 2018, the AHA made a statement about the importance of eating oily fish, emphasizing that 1 to 2 seafood meals per week may reduce the risk of congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and sudden cardiac death.

The benefits were especially seen when seafood replaced the intake of less nutritious foods.

Regularly eating fish and seafood is also linked to a lower risk for CVD. Thanks to the DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids found in these fish, these protein sources may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Dates

A small glass dish filled with dates surrounded by dates on a pale pink background.

Rauf Alvi/Unsplash

Dates can be wonderful additions to sweet and savory dishes. The naturally sweet fruit is rich in polyphenols, particularly flavonoids, micronutrients, and dietary fiber—all of which are needed for heart health.

A 2021 study suggested that eating dates may help reduce triglycerides and cholesterol levels, but more research is needed to prove the link.

Olive Oil

A glass decanter of olive oil surrounded by bay leaves and cherry tomatoes on a wooden table.

Pezibear/Pixabay

Olive oil contains healthy fats that are key for cardiovascular health. It’s also versatile—you can drizzle it on a salad or use it as a heart-healthy cooking oil.

A 2014 study of more than 7,000 adults who were at risk for developing heart disease looked at the possible benefits of following a Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts or extra-virgin olive oil.

The study found that people who included the most olive oil in their diets had a 35% lower risk of developing CVD and a 48% lower risk of dying from CVD.

A 2022 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at the diets of people over almost 30 years. The study showed that people who ate more than half a tablespoon (7 grams) of olive oil per day had a 19% lower risk of experiencing early death from CVD compared to people who included less olive oil in their diets.

What This Means For You

There are some risk factors for CVD, like your age and family history, that you can’t change. Your diet is one area where you can make choices that support your heart health and even lower your risk of CVD.

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21 Sources
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