The real secret to keeping your heart healthy? Eat more of these anti-inflammatory foods that work to stop heart disease.

By Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
Updated January 29, 2021
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Researchers have slowly discovered that low-grade inflammation is the primary culprit behind most every chronic health condition, and this includes heart health. But exactly how is inflammation connected to heart disease and one's risk for a heart attack or stroke?

Here's a quick breakdown to explain:

  • Not-so-healthy eating habits irritate the body, triggering initial low-level inflammation. And unlike "good" inflammation that heals the body and then goes away, this type sticks around, making the body more susceptible to disease.
  • When it comes to heart disease, this low-grade inflammation increases levels of LDL or "bad" cholesterol, encouraging fatty deposits to form in arteries. This gradually narrows the passageway for blood; it's why high blood pressure is a common early sign of heart disease.
  • Other lifestyle factors like inactivity, stress, weight gain, and a lack of sleep exacerbate this low-level of inflammation, driving heart disease progression, increasing artery buildup, and boosting the risk of heart attack and stroke.

This means that decreasing inflammation is the key to improving heart health. To do that, focus your diet and meal planning on anti-inflammatory foods that are known to aid in minimizing heart disease risk factors (such as high cholesterol or blood pressure, and excess body weight). Here are 10 top anti-inflammatory foods for keeping your heart healthy and reducing heart disease risks.

1. Walnuts

shelled walnuts
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Research suggests that eating an ounce of walnuts or other tree nuts every day reduces heart disease risk by 35 percent and significantly reduces cholesterol. This is attributed to the anti-inflammatory effects of nutrients in the nuts, such as unsaturated fatty acids, fiber, folate, vitamin E, phytosterols, and potassium.

Another heart-health benefit: research also suggests that people who eat nuts daily are more likely to be at a healthy body weight. Not a walnut fan? Almonds, pistachios, and other tree nuts, as well as peanuts, offer similar benefits.

2. Berries

Summer berries in cartons
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Strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and other summer berries deliver big time when it comes to reducing inflammation for heart health. This is largely due to anthocyanins, compounds that give berries their red-purple color and act like antioxidants to prevent build-up in arteries and to improve blood flow.

Berries are also low in calories and a good source of fiber (two to four grams fiber per half cup). A large portion of that fiber is soluble, which is associated with reducing cholesterol values.

Also, fresh isn't always better. Frozen berries are usually frozen as soon as being picked, and can have more nutrients than fresh.

Related: Browse our collections of Berry Recipes.

3. Legumes

Variety of legumes in glasses on metal background
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The legume family includes lentils, beans, and peas, and research suggests that eating a variety of them three to four times a week (or at least three cups weekly) is one of the best things to do for your heart.

Not only are legumes high in fiber (one-half cup has seven to nine grams) which lowers cholesterol and inflammatory blood markers, but also they are great sources of plant-based protein. And substituting plant-based protein sources like black beans, lentils, and chickpeas for higher-fat animal protein a few times a week also reduces heart disease risk.

4. Hot Tea

Directly Above Shot Of Tea On Table
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Could improving heart health be as easy as sipping on a hot cup of tea each day. Both black and green tea leaves contain polyphenolic compounds known as flavonols and catechins, and research suggests the compounds work to reduce cholesterol production and absorption.

In fact, drinking two to three cups per day has the potential to significantly reduce both total cholesterol and LDL or "bad" cholesterol, which in turn reduces overall risk for heart disease and blockages. While both have less caffeine than coffee, green has the lowest amount if you're watching your caffeine intake.

5. Garlic

three garlic heads
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Its flavor may be pungent, but garlic has a calming effect on inflammation within the body, particularly when it comes to heart health. Several studies suggest that garlic has the ability to lower cholesterol levels and to prevent the formation of plaque buildup and blood clots. Thoughts vary on how much garlic to consume, as well as the best ways to consume it. Until more is known, look for ways to add garlic into daily cooking to reap potential heart — and flavor — benefits.

Related: Browse our collection of Garlic Recipes.

6. Avocado

avocado halves
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For decades, we were told to minimize all fat to keep our heart healthy, but research now tells us that certain types are healthy and beneficial. Avocados are a great way to get that "good" fat, and they also contain vitamin E, fiber, and carotenoids which work together to soothe inflammation. What's even more impressive though is that the nutrients in avocado may even be able to counteract some inflammation triggered by less healthy foods eaten around the same time.

7. Butternut Squash

Butternut Squash by Getty
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Butternut's bright orange color is a sign that this veggie is packed with carotenoids like beta-carotene, which acts as an antioxidant. In fact, regularly eating carotenoid-rich foods (think orange and dark green produce) is associated with a decreased risk of inflammation and heart disease.

But we're also big on butternut squash and for its versatility. Roast it, puree it, or spiralize it to use in place of pasta. We love that it makes it a little easier to get in five produce servings a day, something that research also links to reducing your risk of heart disease and inflammation.

8. Salmon

Sockeye Salmon Fillet
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When it comes to improving heart health, some of the most substantial research centers around omega-3 fatty acids. Cold-water fish, like salmon, are some of the best sources of those fatty acids.

In fact, findings are so strong that the American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish twice per week (six to eight ounces total per week) to gain these heart-protective benefits, so look for ways to add more in if you're not already getting that.

Other omega-3 sources other than salmon are canned light tuna, catfish, pollock, sardines, anchovies, and shrimp.

9. Red Wine

Red Wine Toast with Friends
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While a glass of wine may not be a beverage one necessarily needs, indulging in wine on occasion makes life more pleasurable for many. And if drinking wine in moderation helps you to stick with a healthy eating approach and lifestyle long-term, then this can be beneficial.

The reason is that wine contains resveratrol, a compound associated with significant decreases in heart disease risk. While resveratrol is found in all wine, the highest amounts are found in red wine. Want a non-alcoholic option with similar resveratrol amounts? Snack on red grapes instead.

10. Flaxseed

Bowl with flax seeds
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Flaxseeds may be tiny, but they pack a huge punch when it comes to reducing inflammation related to heart health. This is due to a unique type of fiber in flaxseeds that's not commonly found in foods called lignans, along with polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids. The anti-inflammatory effects from this nutrient combination work to decrease blood pressure and to improve cholesterol numbers. Look for ways to incorporate a little ground or whole flaxseed in each day by sprinkling it in hot or cold cereal, baked goods, and smoothies.

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Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100 Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award, and her work is regularly featured in or on respective websites for Cooking Light, RealSimple, Parents, Health, EatingWell, Allrecipes, My Fitness Pal, eMeals, Rally Health, and the American Heart Association. You can follower on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.