If you’re trying to improve heart health, you probably already know that it’s a good idea to bypass butter and bacon, and pump up your intake of fruits and veggies. But there are some foods that you might not expect to see on a “heart healthy” list—delicious picks that have real cardiovascular perks, according to studies. Enjoy any of these five heart-helpers:
1. Beer: When it comes to alcohol and heart health, red wine generally takes center stage. Yet research now shows that other types of alcohol, including beer, can help protect your pumper. A recent study showed that drinking beer, red wine, white wine or liquor, three or four times per week—in moderation, which means one glass per day for women, two glasses for men—helped to reduce the risk for heart disease in at-risk individuals. Further research, which shows that all alcoholic drinks are associated with a lower risk for heart disease, suggests that a substantial portion of the benefit is from the alcohol itself, rather than other components of each type of drink. If you’re watching your weight, stick to a light beer to cut calories. And always drink in moderation.
2. Chocolate: You’ve probably seen news headlines like these: “Chocolate is Good for You,” or “Chocolate as Health Food.” It’s true, studies show that cocoa flavanols found in chocolate may help lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation and boost cardiovascular function.
But before you unwrap that candy bar, know that you’d have to eat approximately 750 calories worth of dark chocolate– or a whopping 5,800 calories of milk chocolate – to see a heart protective benefit. (These numbers are averages. Flavanol levels vary widely from brand to brand) So you can’t really get enough cocoa flavanols from chocolate without blowing your calorie budget. But a little cocoa powder can be both heart healthy and good for your waistline. For about 70 calories of unsweetened cocoa powder (approx. 6 tablespoons) you’ll get 750 mg cocoa flavonals – a level that may have heart health benefits. Enjoy cocoa powder in your coffee, milk or yogurt.
3. Potatoes: Potatoes may be the quintessential carb—a four-letter word in some dieting circles. But it’s actually a great choice. One medium potato clocks in at just 118 calories and is a terrific source of filling fiber. They are also high in magnesium and potassium—a powerful pair that has been show to help lower blood pressure, research shows. The ratio of potassium to sodium may be more important for blood pressure and heart health than the amount of either nutrient individually, studies suggests, so select sodium-free alternatives to spice up your spuds. However you prefer your potato—mashed, roasted or baked—it’s a simple and inexpensive side dish that will add a heart-healthy boost to your favorite meals. Try the tubers in this Slimmed-Down Scalloped Potatoes recipe—it will not disappoint.
4. Canola Oil: Olive oil is perhaps the best-known heart-healthy swap for butter, but there’s another heart-smart all-star: canola oil. Canola oil is made up of 93% healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. In fact, it has the least amount of saturated fat of any common oil. Studies show that canola oil may reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease when used in place of saturated fat. Best of all, it’s ideal for just about every type of cooking—its neutral taste and light texture makes it perfect for baking, sautéeing and grilling. For instance, it’s perfect in this Easy Applesauce Cake.
5. Whole Grains: With so many people jumping on the low carb and “Paleo” bandwagons, whole grains are being left behind. But this is one heart-smart group you definitely want to keep in your diet. Eating whole instead of refined grains substantially lowers total cholesterol, LDL “bad” cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin levels. All of these changes reduce the risk for heart disease. In fact, the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study, women who ate 2 to 3 servings of whole-grain products (mostly bread and breakfast cereals) each day were 30% less likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease over a 10-year period than women who ate less than 1 serving per week. Shake up your menu with some less common grains like barley, kasha, millet, bulgur, and quinoa. Or for a nutritious high-fiber breakfast, choose whole grain cereals with no added sugars like oatmeal or a sodium free cereal like Post Shredded Wheat.