Dietitians Share the Heart-Healthy Ingredients They Eat Every Day

When it comes to cardiovascular health, there's a long list of things you should and shouldn't be eating — an information overload that's enough to trigger agita even as you seek to fight against it. We ask nutritionists and medical experts to weigh in on how they incorporate heart-healthy ingredients into their diets without skipping a beat.

There are a lot of guidelines to follow for heart health, and new recommendations crop up constantly — especially now, during American Heart Month. The deluge of new tips, tricks, to-dos, and tangents is enough to trigger panicky palpitations, defeating the purpose of your research. Because as great as a wide range of recommendations can be, it's easy to get overwhelmed with so many choices and options. So how do we keep the hardest-working muscle in our bodies in peak condition consistently, without overtaxing our brains in the meantime?

Many diet experts believe that establishing a routine and remembering a few standard-bearing go-tos is a much more manageable way to keep your heart health a priority. Experienced dietitians and medical professionals seamlessly incorporate certain food items into their daily or weekly repertoire to move maintaining heart health from a chore to something they don't really need to think about.

Here are a few ways nutrition experts practice what they preach as they take their own advice … well, to heart.

Make Friends with the Right Fats

Throughout most of the '80s and '90s, fat was the enemy. Finally, recently, the good guys among them have been vindicated.

Advanced practice clinician and acute care and cardiothoracic surgery specialist Mike Wang's take is that although "you have to be mindful of cholesterol levels, cardiovascular health doesn't mean cut out fat altogether. That's actually quite ignorant — your brain and other parts of your body need fat! But take it in the form of foods such as avocado, fish oil, nuts, and seeds," ingredients that are known to be high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, he adds.

Registered dietitian Nicole Ramirez of Believe in Health is a proponent of using avocados to fill the need for monounsaturated fats, which help to lower LDL cholesterol, or the "bad" type of cholesterol. "It also has important nutrients such as potassium and magnesium, which is associated with cardiovascular health — potassium can help with blood pressure control." And it's easy to enjoy! "Avocado toast, avocado in salads, guacamole — these are just some of the ways I work it into my diet," she shares.

It's the saturated fats that you have to watch for — fats that are typically solid at room temperature, such as butter, cheese, cream, and other dairy; animal fats like tallow, bacon, poultry skin; red meats including lamb; coconut and palm oil; and manufactured trans fats like shortening with partially hydrogenated oils.

"Limiting saturated fat has been found to lower unhealthy cholesterol levels," says certified registered dietitian and nutritionist Karalynn Chiazzese. She advises, "Try these simple swaps: skim or 1 percent milk for whole milk; olive oil instead of coconut oil; removing the skin from chicken; and choosing lean beef like flank or skirt steaks over high-fat cuts."

Memorize These Acronyms — and Their Sources

The fats you do you want to seek out are omega-3 fatty acids: EPA, DHA, ALA. This triplicate of triple-letter abbreviations stand for eicosapantaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, and alpha-linolenic acid, respectively, and all play roles in lowering triglycerides, resting blood pressure, and body fat levels. On the other side of their beneficial see-saw, they increase HDL, otherwise known as "good" cholesterol.

"EPA and DHA are primarily found in fish such as salmon, tuna, halibut and cod; ALA is found in plant sources," says Chiazzese. "Consumption of ALA has been shown to reduce risk of death from heart attack and coronary heart disease, and good sources of it include olive oil, walnuts, and flax seeds.

"I love incorporating these into a delicious heart-healthy meal in my air fryer! Air-fried salmon comes out perfectly cooked; air-fried asparagus drizzled with olive oil is so crispy; and I like air-fried sweet potato fries for fiber," Chiazzese adds.

Have Fun with Fiber

… A perfect segue into the next nutrient dietitians swear by: fiber. Claire Peacock, a practicing nutritionist and Vice President of Product Fulfillment for MenuTrinFo, a third-party nutritional analysis firm with major national brand clients, can't emphasize the importance of it enough.

As a company that works very closely within the strict confines of FDA guidelines, she prescribes to their findings that "there is a significant relationship between diets that are high in soluble fiber and low in saturated fat with a lower risk of coronary heart disease." This same water-dissolving, gel-producing fiber that is critical to digestive health is also thought to do double duty for heart health, helping to "lower bad LDL cholesterol by pushing them through the digestive tract before they can enter the bloodstream," she says.

She shares, "Fiber can be such an attainable nutrient," as opposed to more costly or limited availability of more buzzy heart-healthy ingredients, "and can be found all throughout the grocery store.

"In the produce section, any fresh item you find will have a mix of soluble and insoluble fiber. Avocado is a surprisingly high source — a full one contains 17 grams. In the middle [aisles], grains like oats and canned beans are good sources and typically pretty wallet-friendly. And finally, frozen fruits and veggies are another convenient fiber source. Unlike some nutrients that may lose potency when frozen, fiber is non-nutritive; since it's never absorbed, there's no change to how well it functions fresh, frozen, dried, or canned. Yet the average American only eats about half of the recommended daily value, which is set at 28 grams," she exclaims.

Chiazzese builds cholesterol-binding soluble fiber into her diet by consuming a lot of asparagus, sweet potatoes, legumes, oats, Brussel sprouts, and apricots. "Add dried beans to soup, vegetables to most meals, and eating, rather than drinking whole fruit," she suggests. And to her, oats are an easy way to fit the bill. "Try sprinkling oat bran on your cereal, adding oat bran to muffin recipes, eating a bowl of oatmeal."

And Ramirez confesses that as much as she likes oatmeal, she's not above transporting cholesterol out of her body by way of oatmeal cookies. Which is all well and good, provided you're cognizant of additives like sugar and flavor enhancers, Wang cautions. Rather than using pre-mixed oatmeal, make your own and mix in what you like exactly how you like it — which might surprisingly mean with less sugar.

Top Things Off

"Squirrel food," as I call it, or nuts, seeds, and berries are another favorite among our panel. Ramirez touts the antioxidant power of berries: "They help fight cell damage and lower blood pressure" — and are easy for her to enjoy in smoothies, with whipped cream, or as oatmeal or yogurt accompaniments. Plus, they're also typically high in fiber.

She also regularly works flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds into her diet. "These seeds are heart-healthy because they contain omega-3s, which evidence shows can reduce triglyceride levels. I use them in smoothies, salads, and oatmeal," she says, to really work in a high density of cardio-supportive nutrients. Dark chocolate is another way she helps her heart deliciously. Ramirez adds, "It's high in flavonoids, which are antioxidants that have been shown to improve blood pressure."

Chiazzese is a big fan of walnuts ("They contain much more ALA than any other nut!") and ground flax seeds or flax seed oil. Her pro tip, though, is to "be sure the flax seed is ground as your body can't digest the beneficial fat if you eat the whole flax seed," rendering its inclusion moot. (We're looking at you, multi-grain breads.) Her go-to heart-healthy breakfast is a yogurt parfait with low-fat plain Greek yogurt, cinnamon, ground flax seeds, and crushed walnuts.

colander filled with leafy greens

Be-leaf These Benefits

"Leafy vegetables are an easy, traditional, and conventional food known to promote good heart health," Wang says. Dark ones are not only known to be high in fiber, but are also particularly rich in folates, which work with vitamins B-6 and B-12 to control homocysteine in the blood, which in turn translates to a lower risk of heart and blood vessel disease and stroke.

Specific ones, like kale, contain nitrates for blood flow and greater distribution of oxygen through these channels; spinach packs levels of potassium that both removes excess sodium, relieves water retention, and reduces stress on your blood vessel walls; and vegetables like mustard and collard greens offer up vitamin K, which works to keep those arteries pliable and less calcified, creating less work for your heart. And that's only to mention a few!

That's not to say that vegetables like broccoli don't have big jobs when it comes to maintaining your heart, either. Peacock points out that "a cup of frozen broccoli contains five grams of dietary fiber, half of it soluble."

Wang just cautions against fussing too much with a good thing. "To have them as they are is great. But the moment we start to add dressings, sugar, and others additives, it can destroy the natural benefits they originally add." In fact, it's this minimalist philosophy that led him to found his new, heart-healthy Chinese restaurant concept MÓGŪ™, under advisement of nutritional experts whose knowledge is even deeper than his own.

Spice It Up

Fewer enhancers doesn't necessarily mean less exciting flavors. "This may be a little controversial, but I believe in spicy foods for cardiovascular health," Wang adds, with the caveat that "the individual doesn't have stomach or acid reflux issues."

"Spicy foods are actually great for metabolism and cardiovascular health. Foods such as roasted garlic, grilled jalapeño peppers, sun-dried pepper flakes — these are all very good at promoting a healthy heart!" he exclaims. And, just for fun, he adds with a twinkle: "Just a piece of trivia: traditionally, people thought heartburn and acid reflex were caused by spicy foods and stress. But this is not scientifically true. It's actually caused by a certain kind of bacteria within the intestines."

How peppers pipe in is through decreasing bad LDL cholesterol, increasing good HDL levels, and improving circulation by dilating your blood vessels. Capsaicinoids have also been suggested to lower blood pressure and fight blood clot formation. According to a study presented by the American Chemical Society on this substance that lends these types of vegetables their heat, they can even block action of a gene that makes arteries contract, allowing a freer flow of blood.

Meanwhile, garlic helps to lower lipids, prevent cell damage, regulating cholesterol by lowering LDL (despite having no reliable effect on HDL), reduce blood pressure, reducing plaque build-up in the arteries, and repairing damage of artery walls.

In the same family of alliums, studies have shown that the anti-inflammatory power of onions may help inhibit the clumping of platelets in the blood, keeping those pathways nice and clear. And thanks to flavonoids like kaempferol and quercetin, which are antioxidants, they also play a role to prevent cardiovascular and even potentially neurodegenerative disease with vascular components.

Start Small

All of these accessible food choices feature common, flexible flavors that make it so much easier and less overwhelming to consciously incorporate heart health into your everyday eating patterns. All of the expert testimony just goes to show that eating in a cardio-conscious way can be as fun and delicious as it is smart and responsible. All it takes are small steps to get on the path to giving your heart its best chances for success.

And remember, as Dr. Wang says, "Overall, it's important to keep in mind that cardiovascular health and how someone looks doesn't always correlate. A super fit-looking body doesn't always translate to a healthy heart," so never let your body type or disposition discourage you. "The key is to have balance. Any nutrition must be coupled with exercise and a healthy lifestyle that minimizes artificial input of substances in your body."

So take heart! Because a strong, healthy one is a physical attribute that may be easier to achieve than you think.

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