Just about everyone knows that a Mediterranean-style diet can help prevent heart disease. Even if you’ve already had a heart attack, this style of eating—emphasizing such foods as fish and vegetables—can reduce the risk for a second heart attack by up to 70%.
Problem: About 80% of patients with heart disease quit following dietary advice within one year after their initial diagnosis. That’s often because they want more choices but aren’t sure which foods have been proven to work.
Solution: Whether you already have heart disease or want to prevent it, you can liven up your diet by trying foods that usually don’t get much attention for their heart-protective benefits…
SECRET 1: Popcorn. It’s more than just a snack. It’s a whole grain that’s high in cholesterol-lowering fiber. Surprisingly, popcorn contains more fiber, per ounce, than whole-wheat bread or brown rice.
Scientific evidence: Data from the 1999–2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that people who eat popcorn daily get 22% more fiber than those who don’t eat it.
Important: Eat “natural” popcorn, preferably air-popped or microwaved in a brown paper bag, without added oil. The commercially prepared popcorn packets generally contain too much salt, butter and other additives. Three cups of popped popcorn, which contain almost 6 g of fiber and 90 calories, is considered a serving of whole grains. Studies have shown that at least three servings of whole grains a day (other choices include oatmeal and brown rice) may help reduce the risk for heart disease, high cholesterol and obesity.
SECRET 2: Chia seeds. You’re probably familiar with Chia pets—those terra-cotta figures that sprout thick layers of grassy “fur.” The same seeds, native to Mexico and Guatemala, are increasingly available in health-food stores. I consider them a superfood because they have a nutrient profile that rivals heart-healthy flaxseed.
In fact, chia seeds contain more omega-3 fatty acids than flaxseed. Omega-3s increase the body’s production of anti-inflammatory eicosanoids, hormonelike substances that help prevent “adhesion molecules” from causing plaque buildup and increasing atherosclerosis.
Scientific evidence: A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which looked at nearly 40,000 participants, found that an omega-3 rich diet can prevent and even reverse existing cardiovascular disease.
Other benefits: One ounce of chia seeds has 10 g of fiber, 5 g of alpha-linolenic acid and 18% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for calcium for adults ages 19 to 50.
Chia seeds look and taste something like poppy seeds. You can add them to baked goods, such as muffins, or sprinkle them on salads and oatmeal or other cereals.
SECRET 3: Figs. They’re extraordinarily rich in antioxidants with an oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score of 3,383. Scientists use this ORAC scale to determine the antioxidant capacity of various foods. An orange, by comparison, scores only about 1,819. Fresh figs are among the best sources of beta-carotene and other heart-healthy carotenoids.
Scientific evidence: In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, two groups of participants were “challenged” with sugary soft drinks, which are known to increase arterial oxidation. Oxidation in the arteries triggers atherosclerosis, a main risk factor for heart disease. Those who were given only soda had a drop in healthful antioxidant activity in the blood… those who were given figs as well as soda had an increase in blood antioxidant levels.
Bonus: Ten dried figs contain 140 mg of calcium. Other compounds in figs, such as quercetin, reduce inflammation and dilate the arteries. Perhaps for these reasons, people who eat figs regularly have much less heart disease than those who don’t eat them, according to studies. Most dried figs contain added sulfites, so it’s best to buy organic, sulfite-free dried figs.
SECRET 4: Soy protein. Tofu, soy milk and other soy foods are “complete proteins”—that is, they supply all of the essential amino acids that your body needs but without the cholesterol and large amount of saturated fat found in meat.
Scientific evidence: People who replace dairy or meat protein with soy will have an average drop in LDL “bad” cholesterol of 2% to 7%, according to research from the American Heart Association. Every 1% drop in LDL lowers heart disease risk about 2%.
A one-half cup serving of tofu provides 10 g of protein. An eight-ounce glass of soy milk gives about 7 g. Edamame (steamed or boiled green soybeans) has about 9 g per half cup. Avoid processed soy products, such as hydrogenated soybean oil (a trans fat), soy isoflavone powders and soy products with excess added sodium.
SECRET 5: Lentils. I call these “longevity legumes” because studies have shown that they can literally extend your life. Best choices: Brown or black lentils.
Scientific evidence: In one study, published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the eating habits of five groups of older adults were compared. For every 20 g (a little less than three-fourths of an ounce) increase in the daily intake of lentils and/or other legumes, there was an 8% reduction in the risk of dying within seven years.
Lentils contain large amounts of fiber, plant protein and antioxidants along with folate, iron and magnesium—all of which are important for cardiovascular health.
Similarly, a Harvard study found that people who ate one serving of cooked beans (one-third cup) a day were 38% less likely to have a heart attack than those who ate beans less than once a month. Caution: Beans have been shown to cause gout flare-ups in some people.
Important: Lentils cook much faster than other beans. They don’t need presoaking. When simmered in water, they’re ready in 20 to 30 minutes. You need about one-half cup of cooked lentils, beans or peas each day for heart health.
SECRET 6: Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. All types of alcohol seem to have some heart-protective properties, but red wine offers the most.
Scientific evidence: People who drink alcohol regularly in moderation (one five-ounce glass of wine daily for women, and no more than two for men) have a 30% to 50% lower risk of dying from a heart attack than those who don’t drink, according to research published in Archives of Internal Medicine.
Best choices: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat wines (made from Tannat red grapes). These wines have the highest concentrations of flavonoids, antioxidants that reduce arterial inflammation and inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Oxidation is the process that makes cholesterol more likely to accumulate within artery walls.
Bonus: Red wines also contain resveratrol, a type of polyphenol that is thought to increase the synthesis of proteins that slow aging. Red wine has 10 times more polyphenols than white varieties.
In a four-year study of nearly 7,700 men and women nondrinkers, those who began to drink a moderate amount of red wine cut their risk for heart attack by 38% compared with nondrinkers.
If you are a nondrinker or currently drink less than the amounts described above, talk to your doctor before changing your alcohol intake. If you cannot drink alcohol, pomegranate or purple grape juice is a good alternative.