Five Foods for Heart Health

February is all about hearts: Valentine’s Day and American Heart Month both fall in this part of the year, after all. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, and every year, one in four deaths is caused by heart disease[1]. People who have diabetes are twice as likely to have a heart attack or a stroke compared to people without diabetes. There are a lot of steps that you can take, however, to lower your risk of heart disease. One place to start is to focus on your food choices. Adding the following foods to your eating plan can make it easy to keep your heart and blood vessels in tip-top shape!

Beans. Beans hardly seem glamorous or exciting. But when it comes to heart health, they’re at the top of the list. Beans, peas, and lentils are also called pulses, and they’re a top-trending food for 2016[2]. What makes them so special? For one thing, they’re rich in fiber, which can help lower blood cholesterol levels. They’re also high in potassium and magnesium, minerals that help regulate blood pressure (magnesium is also important for decreasing insulin resistance). Beans are also a great source of protein — but without the saturated fat that’s found in animal protein foods. An added benefit: Beans are cheap! They can easily fit into anyone’s food budget.


Tip for eating beans: Throw some beans (any kind will do) into the next omelet or batch of scrambled eggs that you whip up.

Whole grains. Yes, grains contain carbohydrate. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t eat them. Whole grains have a lot to offer when it comes to health and nutrition. For example: Eating whole grains regularly lowers the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, colorectal cancer, and high blood pressure. And people who eat whole grains tend to be leaner than non-eaters. In case you’re wondering, a whole grain must have the bran, germ, and endosperm intact. Wheat, barley, corn, quinoa, brown rice, and spelt are examples of whole grains. How do you know if a food is or contains a whole grain? You can look for a Whole Grain Stamp[3] on the front of the package. If that’s not present, check the ingredient list: The first ingredient should be a whole grain (e.g., whole wheat, whole oats, brown rice, etc.). Aim for at least three servings per day.

Tip for eating whole grains: Add 3/4 of a cup of uncooked oats to ground hamburger or turkey when making burgers, meatballs, or meatloaf.

Walnuts. Almonds have taken center-stage for a while now, and for good reason. But other nuts offer heart-health benefits, too, like walnuts. Walnuts contain healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids[4]. They’re also chock-full of antioxidants — in fact, they contain much higher levels of antioxidants than other nuts. In addition, walnuts contain fiber, potassium, and magnesium. All of these healthy ingredients add up to lower cholesterol and help protect against heart disease.

Tip for eating walnuts: Add walnuts to a salad or sautéed vegetables. They’re delicious when you roast them in an oven — 170°F for 15–20 minutes.

Chocolate. You probably didn’t expect to find chocolate on the list! Dark chocolate is rich in flavanols, which may help fight heart disease and stroke, and may even lower cholesterol level. Researchers believe that these flavanols keep blood vessels healthy and working as they should. Cocoa may help lower blood pressure, too. However, it’s important to go for the “right” kind of chocolate in order to reap its benefits: Choose chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa solids. Milk chocolate and white chocolate don’t cut it (sorry, all you milk chocolate fans!). And go easy with the portion: Chocolate is a high-calorie food!

Tip for eating chocolate: One hardly needs any tips for eating chocolate — it’s delicious all by itself. But if you need another idea, try shaving or grating dark chocolate into your cereal, oatmeal, or yogurt.

Avocado. This smooth, creamy fruit is what makes guacamole so tasty. You can thank the monounsaturated fat in avocado for its buttery goodness, which protects against heart disease. Besides their healthy fat, avocados contain plant sterols, natural ingredients that lower cholesterol. Plus, avocados have other healthy nutrients, too, including fiber, potassium, and vitamin E.

Tip for eating avocado: Avocado too ripe? Don’t waste it — hold the mayo and spread the avocado on a slice of whole-grain bread when making sandwiches.

Are you looking for help navigating the many options in the dairy aisle with diabetes? Bookmark[5] and tune in tomorrow for tips from registered dietitian — and person with diabetes — Regina Shirley!

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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