Why: Beets deserve a badge of honor in the veggie family, says Jorge A. Brenes-Salazar, M.D., a geriatric cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic. That’s due to their high doses of nitrates, which help keep blood vessels dilated and healthy. A 2013 British study showed that simply drinking a cup of beet juice daily significantly lowered blood pressure in hypertensive patients.
Also know: When it comes to heart health, it pays to see red — or orange or yellow. “Fruits and veggies with those colors have carotenoids and flavonoids,” pigments known for their heart-healthy antioxidant properties, Brenes-Salazar explains. Try these other blushing nutrient-rich veggies and fruits: carrots, sweet potatoes, acorn squash, oranges, cantaloupe and papaya.
Pumpkin seeds and walnuts
Why: A study presented in 2019 at the AHA’s Hypertension Scientific Sessions found that eating pumpkin seeds may help lower blood pressure. According to the AHA, pumpkin seeds are rich in fiber and a variety of nutrients, particularly heart-healthy magnesium (a quarter cup contains 42 percent of the RDA of the mineral). As for walnuts, a 2019 Penn State study found that participants who ate walnuts daily while lowering overall saturated fats saw their blood pressure decrease.
Also know: “Any nuts are good sources of monounsaturated fats,” says Kate Patton, lead outpatient dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. “For people who don’t eat fish, they are a good way to get in those omega-3 fats.” A 2019 study presented at the European Society of Cardiology showed that eating nuts two or more times a week was associated with a 17 percent lower risk of cardiovascular mortality. But remember one word: moderation. These are calorie-dense foods, so keep portions modest and avoid added salt, sugars and oils. Penny Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University, advises limiting yourself each day to “an amount that will fit in the palm of your hand.”
Why: Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital reported in 2020 that a study of more than 200,000 people found a link between consuming isoflavone-rich tofu more than once a week and an 18 percent lower risk of heart disease. Beyond that, tofu is a great source of plant protein, so it’s a smart substitute for red meat or pork. “It also has phytosterols — plant cholesterols that actually improve the cholesterol in our own bodies,” Brenes-Salazar says.
What’s more, the latest USDA dietary guidelines, issued in December, recommend around 5 to 6 ounces of protein (from meat, chicken, eggs, fish, nuts or soy products) a day, Kris-Etherton says. “When people are heavy meat eaters, they need to slowly find ways to replace the meat with other healthy foods, and tofu is one.”
Olives and olive oils
Why: If you’ve heard of the Mediterranean diet (and who hasn’t?), then you know all about olive oil. It not only boosts good, heart-protective cholesterol but also staves off diabetes and strokes. Recent research confirms its salubrious effects: A 2020 European study found that patients who had had heart attacks and subsequently followed a Mediterranean diet high in olive oil had better repair of the arterial linings; a 2020 study by the University of Minnesota Medical School showed that olive oil may help people live longer.
Try to follow the USDA guidelines of 27 grams (about two tablespoons) a day. “Remember,” Kris-Etherton says, “olive oil is calorically dense.” As for olives, make sure to buy the low-sodium variety, available at many big-box stores. Speaking of oils, Brenes-Salazar warns against the recently voguish coconut oil; instead, he suggests using either olive or pecan oil, which is neutral in flavor, rich in monounsaturated fats and low in saturated ones.