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Eating a heart-healthy diet throughout your life can go a long way toward keeping you in top shape as you age. “In fact, heart disease is largely preventable,” says Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Eating a healthy diet, combined with not smoking and exercising regularly, could prevent about 80 percent of heart disease cases.”
As a general rule, a heart-healthy diet should focus on whole grains, healthy fats, lean sources of protein and a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. And you should minimize refined carbohydrates, sugar and saturated fats.
But certain foods are particularly heart-smart because they’ve been specifically linked to clearer arteries, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and/or reduced inflammation. Incorporating more of them into your overall healthy diet may help decrease your risk of heart disease.
Still, it’s not so much about adding more foods (and more calories) to your daily intake as it is about using these heart-healthy foods to replace less-healthy ones. “You can’t sprinkle nuts on top of a chocolate sundae and think you’ve done something good for your heart,” says Alice Lichtenstein, director and senior scientist at the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University.
When you’re looking for heart-healthy options, here are seven foods that stand out.
All whole grains are good for your heart. A 2016 analysis of 14 studies published in the journal Circulation found that for every serving of whole grains consumed daily, the risk of cardiovascular disease dropped by 9 percent (compared with eating no whole grains).
But oatmeal deserves special recognition for its cholesterol-lowering powers. “Oatmeal is particularly rich in soluble fiber,” Willett says. “And soluble fiber has been shown to bind to cholesterol and keep it out of the bloodstream.”
To get the benefits, you need to have at least three grams of soluble fiber a day — that’s the amount in three-quarters of a cup of dry oats.
According to the Agriculture Department, apples are the second-most-eaten fruit (after bananas) and have some important heart-health benefits.
The fruit — especially its skin — is rich in antioxidant flavonoids such as quercetin and anthocyanins (for red apples) that have been linked to cardio-protective effects.
And a 2012 study of 160 postmenopausal women found that those who consumed 75 grams of dried apple daily (equal to about two medium fresh apples) reduced their total cholesterol by 9 percent and LDL cholesterol by 16 percent after three months.
Plus, apples are a top source of soluble fiber.
Fish is the best dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat that may help reduce the risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two 3½-ounce servings of fish a week.
Unfortunately, some types of fish that are omega-3-rich have too much mercury (think mackerel or albacore tuna) or are pricey (such as salmon). Sardines are a low-mercury choice and pack nearly 1,000 milligrams of omega-3s in just 3½ ounces. Plus, they’re inexpensive and, because they come canned, convenient.
Nuts are a good source of unsaturated fats as well as fiber, protein and a variety of minerals and antioxidants.
Walnuts in particular may have a slight edge, thanks to their high levels of anti-inflammatory alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fat found in plant foods. A study published last year in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that people who ate a one-ounce serving of nuts five or more times a week had a 14 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) than those who didn’t eat nuts. But those who ate one or more servings of walnuts per week had a 19 percent lower risk of CVD.
The category of food known as pulses (which includes lentils, beans, chickpeas and dry peas) is known for its heart-health benefits. These plant-based protein sources are low in fat, high in fiber and rich in nutrients — such as potassium and the B vitamin folate — that have been linked to lower blood pressure.
While you can tap into the power of pulses by eating any variety, lentils have one big advantage: They’re fast. Unlike most dried beans that require soaking and at least an hour on the stove, lentils just need a quick rinse and cook in less than 20 minutes.
Berries (of all kinds) get well-deserved attention for their heart-health benefits. They get their red and blue coloring from antioxidant anthocyanins.
Blueberries have one of the highest levels of anthocyanins, with 120 milligrams per half-cup. Some clinical trials have shown that higher intakes of anthocyanins can help decrease blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol and reduce inflammation.
Dark leafy greens are a universally healthy food group, rich in many beneficial nutrients. And they all pack high doses of magnesium and potassium, both of which are important for helping to regulate blood pressure.
Among leafy greens, kale stands out for also containing high levels of the antioxidant lutein. Lutein gets a lot of credit for helping to prevent macular degeneration. But several studies have also linked higher levels in the blood to decreased levels of inflammatory markers and atherosclerosis.
Note, though, that kale is high in vitamin K, and eating too much vitamin K can interfere with anticoagulant medications — especially if you suddenly consume a lot of it. So if you take these drugs, check with your doctor before gorging on kale salads.
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