Cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, is the number one cause of death in the United States and a leading killer worldwide. Scary statistics aside, there are a number of steps we can all take to help protect our hearts, including making sound dietary choices. For advice on heart-healthy eating and living, we consulted Michael F. Roizen, M.D., the co-author with Mehmet C. Oz, M.D., of the best-selling "YOU" series, including "YOU: The Owner's Manual" and "YOU: On a Diet." Roizen is also the co-author of "The RealAge Diet" and contributes to realage.com.
One way to increase your heart's health is through diet, choosing foods that are low in cholesterol and saturated fat — for information on how to do this, check out our favorite heart-healthy recipes and see below for Roizen's advice.
Heart healthy–eating tips
- Five foods to avoid: Roizen isn't shy about telling people to cut things out of their diet. Here are the five foods he says should be avoided at all costs as they cause aging and "have no redeeming value" for health:
- Saturated fat (including palm and coconut oil)
- Trans fat (look for the words "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" on labels)
- Added sugar (i.e., sugar that does not naturally occur in the food)
- Syrups (corn, maple, and other syrups are just added sugar)
- Any grain that is not a 100-percent whole grain.
Epicurious' take: You may not be able to cut these items out of your diet completely, but it's a good idea to limit them.
- Eat fish: Certain types of fish are excellent sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which have been found to lower "bad" cholesterol and have a host of other health benefits. Roizen says that if you're buying fish in the United States, salmon and trout are your best bets for omega-3s.
That's because farm-raised fish are fed corn and soybeans, and tend to have low levels of omega-3 fats and higher levels of less-desirable omega-6 fats. The good news if you're watching your budget: "You don't have to get fresh salmon to get great benefit from salmon," says Roizen. He's a fan of canned salmon and frozen salmon burgers, both of which tend to come from the overrun of wild Alaskan salmon catches.
- Get plant-based good fats: Omega-3s aren't just found in fish. Good plant-based sources of these essential fatty acids include algae, flaxseed, chia (the seed of a plant in the mint family — you've probably seen its sprouts on Chia Pets!), and walnuts.
Roizen cites a recent study led by Hannia Campos, Ph.D., that associated a 59 percent reduction in heart attack risk with intake of omega-3s from vegetable oils. And it seems that just six to ten walnut halves contain the amount of good fats necessary for the protective benefits. (You can read more about the study on the American Heart Association Web site.)
- Raise a glass of flavonoids: Red wine is an excellent source of flavonoids — antioxidants that can help protect the heart. "When the body lacks adequate levels of antioxidants, free radical damage ensues, leading to increases in LDL-cholesterol oxidation and plaque formation on arterial walls," an article from the Cleveland Clinic explains. Other good sources of flavonoids are chocolate, tomatoes, broccoli, and "virtually every colored vegetable," says Roizen. So load up on fresh produce for a daily dose of flavonoids.
- Spice things up: Certain spices, such as turmeric, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, a boon for the heart and brain, says Roizen. (Find out more about anti-inflammatory ingredients with our Diets 101 series.)
- Look beyond LDL to overall health: While it's important to limit saturated fat and try to keep LDL (bad) cholesterol levels low, Roizen cautions against ignoring other factors that affect heart and overall health, including blood pressure, total food choices and caloric intake, smoking, stress, weight, and levels of physical activity. He cites a recent finding by the men's component of the Physicians' Health Study that even a little abdominal obesity substantially increased cardiovascular risk. "Waist size was an independent predictor in cardiovascular risk," explains Roizen. So in addition to making healthy food choices, also keep an eye on your overall intake of calories and the number of those you burn off through exercise.
- Adjust your food attitude: "There is no line between great-tasting and great for you," says Roizen. "You can eat only great-tasting food that is also great for you — you do not have to make compromises." He shared this list of some of his personal favorite delicious and healthy foods: an egg white omelet with tons of veggies but no cheese; steel-cut oatmeal with blueberries and strawberries; muffins made with chia; hummus; veggie burgers; salmon; spinach, broccoli, and walnut salad; and a veggie-stuffed pizza with whole-grain crust, some tomato sauce without added sugar, a whole mess of vegetables, and a tiny amount of true smoked mozzarella.
- Linguine with Leeks, Radicchio, and Walnut Pesto
- Pasta with Butternut Squash and Lima Beans
- Kale and White Bean Stew
- Roasted Garbanzo Beans and Garlic with Swiss Chard
- Wilted Spinach with Roasted Garlic
- Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Caraway Seeds
- Winter Dried Fruit and Nut Chocolate Bark
- Mulled Pears and Apples
- Chocolate Panforte Candies
- Candied Espresso Walnuts
For more ideas and recipes, see our complete Get-Healthy Guide.