Much attention is paid to the heart on Valentine’s Day, but maybe romance shouldn’t be the sole focus. Keeping the heart healthy is the best way to keep love alive — and diet is key to heart health. Rachel Johnson, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition at University of Vermont and chair of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee, shares the five most important foods to have in your diet’s rotation — plus the two most important to skip.
Oranges: These citrus fruits are high in fiber and potassium, both of which may protect against heart disease. Fiber (eat the whole fruit, not just the juice, to get it) has cholesterol-lowering benefits, while potassium helps reduce blood pressure. “Americans typically get too much sodium and too little potassium, but getting more potassium can help blunt the unhealthy effects of sodium,” Johnson says.
Avocados: Many people avoid avocados because they are higher in calories and fat than most other fruits and vegetables. But eaten in moderation, they are easily a heart-healthy food. A serving (which is one-fifth of a medium avocado) has just 50 calories, and 3 grams of monounsaturated fat and 0.5 grams of polyunsaturated fat — both healthy fats that help reduce cholesterol levels and lower risk for heart disease.
Almonds: An ounce of these nuts (about 23 almonds) packs 13 grams of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, and just one gram of the saturated kind. Plus they’re rich in fiber and protein so they make a filling and satisfying snack.
Salmon: The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings a week of fatty fish, like salmon, because it’s a rich source of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. “Omega-3s have been shown to lower cholesterol and prevent inflammation,” Johnson says. “And chronic inflammation is a risk factor for heart disease.”
Oatmeal: All whole grains are good for the heart because their fiber helps lower cholesterol. But oatmeal is the one that has a substantial enough body of research behind it to have earned the right from the FDA to include a health claim on its label.
Sugar-sweetened drinks: Not only does the added sugar in sodas, iced teas and energy drinks equate to empty calories, it can also add to your risk for heart disease. People who consume them tend to have several more risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, high LDL cholesterol and high triglycerides.
Trans fats: These dangerous fats are “like a double whammy,” Johnson says. “They not only increase LDL cholesterol [the bad kind], but they decrease HDL cholesterol [the good kind].” And the only way to truly avoid them is to read labels and look for the word “hydrogenated” among the ingredients. “A food can be labeled ‘trans fat free’ and still have up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving,” Johnson says. “If you have multiple servings, that can add up.”
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.