In the spirit of Valentine's Day and all things sweetheart, we thought it would be a good idea to be sweet to our hearts, and focus on the foods that make our actual hearts sing with happiness.
So, in no particular order, I present to you the top ten heart healthy foods. Move over, heart-shaped box of chocolates. Hello, lox-and-avocado wrap!
- Salmon With loads of omega-3 fatty acids—a type of unsaturated fat—fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and herring have been found to be helpful in preventing heart attacks. Wild caught salmon have considerably higher levels of omega-3s than their farmed cousins, which can also have high levels of other less-desirable chemicals and toxins.
- Avocado Also high in omega-3, avocado falls under the "good" fat category (the monounsaturated kind), which can lower your "bad" cholesterol level. Since they help your body absorb important carotenoids like beta carotene and lycopene, avocados can be a powerful addition to a heart healthy diet. Tread with moderation, however: this sodium-free fruit still packs a heavy caloric punch: just one cup of the green mush is a whopping 235 calories!
- Almonds As an unsaturated fat, these tear-shaped nuts—along with their meatier cousins, the walnut—can help lower bad (LDL) cholesterol levels by raising the good (HDL) cholesterol levels. This adds to overall cardiovascular health. And don't just limit yourself to the crunchy raw form: a dollop of almond butter to whole grain toast, or your morning oatmeal (see below), or your afternoon smoothie adds a whole lot of flavor and a heart healthy boost.
- Whole grains/oats Increasing your fiber intake can help lower your LDL cholesterol, too. Bonus: a higher fiber diet can also help you lose weight by filling you up faster, and leaving you feeling that way for a longer time. (Add link here).
- Berries Low in calories and high in fiber and antioxidants, a colorful cup of berries can help keep your blood pressure in check. Experiment with the wide variety whenever they come in season. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries: they each have their own antioxidant makeup and they can be your go-to snack, mid-morning or nighttime. They freeze (and defrost) easily, too, so feel free to stock up and freeze when berry season hits town.
- Spinach With a Popeye-sized punch of potassium, these green leafies have been proven to lower blood pressure in clinical studies. Versatile and unassertive, spinach isn't just a dinner side dish: swap out boring, colorless iceberg lettuce for a cup of baby spinach, and make your next sandwich a crunchy, heart happy treat.
- Olive oil Since we're on the topic of Popeye, his girlfriend's namesake also makes it on our top ten list of heart healthiest foods. Unlike some other oils which can be hydrogenated, leaving it with an unnatural chemical structure your body has a hard time digesting, olive oil—especially the extra virgin (EVOO) variety—is an unsaturated fat that can help lower bad cholesterol and increase the good kind. To make sure you're buying the real-deal EVOO, look for oil that is greener, smoother, and far thicker than corn or vegetable oil. And remember—the antioxidants in EVOO are easily cooked away, so frying up your onions in it may not impart all the same benefits as a raw tablespoon's worth on your salad.
- Flaxseed Super rich in another type of omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), flaxseeds provide multiple cardiac benefits (as does the ALA-rich walnut). Eating just two tablespoons of flaxseed—mixed in yogurt, cereal, smoothies, soups, or stews—can keep your heart happy.
- Soy Soy contains high levels of polyunsaturated fat, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and has very low levels of saturated fat. "Natural" soy foods like edamame and tofu are heart healthy foods—especially when used as a substitute for high-cholesterol meat—but beware of excess soy products, like soy bars and soy milk, as well as soy supplements. Processed soy foods can contain high levels of soy protein isolate and concentrates, which can affect thyroid and other functions, and—like most other processed food—may contain a host of other undesirable ingredients as well.
- Legumes Many legumes—plants that produces the "fruit" in a pod—are low in sodium, high in fiber, and off the charts with vitamins and other minerals like potassium, folate, vitamin C and magnesium, landing these little bitty foods on our top ten heart healthy list. Of the dozens of varities of legumes out there, some of our favorites—both for their nutrient content and cooking versatility—include lentils, kidney beans, navy beans, and chickpeas (also known as the garbanzo bean). There is seemingly no limit to the way you can incorporate these little health nuggets into your diet. Search our recipe index for bean rich meals like our Turkey Chili.