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5 Top Foods for Your Heart—Plus 1 to Avoid

What's best to eat for heart health? A cardiologist weighs in.

Updated on October 23, 2023

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It seems like a new study comes out practically every day telling us what to eat and what to avoid. When it comes to heart health, though, you should take the headlines with, well, a grain of salt.

"There’s not one magic food," says Jimmy L. Kontos, MD, an interventional cardiologist with Grand Strand Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. "It’s about trying to find a balance between a healthy diet and lifestyle. If you have a strong family history of heart disease, you may not be able to avoid problems, but you can put yourself in the best position by eating a heart-healthy diet."

Read on for five foods to add to your menu—and one to skip.

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Salmon and Other Fatty Fish

The omega-3 fatty acids (specifically EPA and DHA) found in fatty fish may help to reduce the type of chronic inflammation that leads to heart disease and several other diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis.

“I recommend that patients make fatty fish like salmon and albacore tuna a staple of their regular diet,” says Dr. Kontos, who suggests two to three servings a week. Just remember to limit your intake of fish that have higher levels of mercury, including king mackerel and swordfish.

Not into fish? Try plant sources of omega-3s, such as walnuts and chia or hemp seeds. If you’re interested in trying over-the-counter fish oil supplements, consult with a healthcare provider (HCP) first. According to Kontos, supplements are generally not concentrated enough to have an impact, and research is split on whether most people would benefit from taking them.

berries
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Berries

Sweet and delicious, berries aren’t simply tasty, but may also aid in reducing risk of heart disease. “Berries—especially blueberries and raspberries—are important because they increase insulin sensitivity, help increase nitric oxide, decrease LDL cholesterol, and help blood clot properly,” Kontos says.

It’s unclear exactly what it is about berries that offer all these benefits, but they boast fiber, a variety of vitamins and minerals, and powerful antioxidants including anthocyanins and flavanols. All of these components appear to add up to one big juicy benefit: a lower risk of heart disease. 

oatmeal
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Oats

You may have heard that oats are good for your heart, but certain preparations may be better than others.

“Oatmeal does help lower insulin levels and it’s high in fiber, so it fills you up, which is beneficial for losing weight,” Kontos says. For a healthy heart, he notes, it’s best to reach for steel-cut oats, with no additives. This type generally takes longer to digest and has a lower glycemic index, which means it causes a more gradual rise in blood sugar.

“A pouch of peaches-and-cream-flavored instant oatmeal isn’t going to give you the same beneficial effects,” he says. Overly processed oatmeal of this sort tends to have less heart-healthy fiber and more salt and sugar than unprocessed varieties.

bread with flax seeds
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Flaxseed

These mighty seeds have become synonymous with a healthy diet, and for good reason. They’re rich in powerful plant chemicals called lignans and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a form of omega-3 fatty acid. As such, flaxseeds boast anti-inflammatory benefits and help lower blood pressure—all of which is great for your heart. “They make the lining of your arteries healthier by dilating them with nitric oxide,” Kontos says.

If you don’t yet have flaxseeds in your pantry, there are a number of ways to work them into your favorite foods. Sprinkle them whole on hot or cold cereal, add them to yogurt for a little crunch and texture, blend them into a smoothie, or add ground flaxseed to baked goods. The ground form may be easier to digest, which can maximize the health benefit.

avocado, guacamole
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Avocados

As if you needed another reason to love your guac, here's one: Avocados are good for your heart. A large 2022 study that tracked more than 100,000 people over three decades found that people who ate at least two servings of avocado each week had a 16 percent lower risk of heart disease than people who rarely or never ate the fruit.

The monounsaturated fats in avocados help fight inflammation. As Kontos explains, increased inflammation can lead to more deposits of plaque within the lining of the arteries, which in turn leads to heart disease. "Ultimately, heart disease is an inflammatory condition," he says.

You can get a healthy helping of avocado by eating the equivalent of one whole fruit or one cup, chopped, each week.

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Cut the Sugar

What's one simple dietary change you can make today for a healthier heart? Skip added sugars, says Kontos. Processed sugars, the kind that sweeten drinks and packaged foods, "are the root of the problem, because they lead to chronic inflammation,” he says.

To cut back, Kontos suggests these strategies:

  • Swap out sugary drinks for water. For a kick of flavor, add a spritz of lemon or lime.
  • Satisfy a sweet tooth with an apple or orange instead of a cookie or doughnut.
  • Read nutrition labels on packaged foods carefully, and steer clear of products that list sweeteners at the top of the ingredient list.
  • Watch out for words ending in “-ose,” such as fructose, sucrose, maltose, and glucose, all of which indicate added sugar.
Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids. March 1, 2022.
Wall R, Ross RP, Fitzgerald GF, Stanton C. Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Nutr Rev. 2010;68(5):280-289.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Omega-3. Last updated April 21, 2022.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eat fish! Which Fish? That Fish! Go Fish! Last Modified: April 2, 2020.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Advice about Eating Fish. Content current as of: June 8, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Fish oil. December 8, 2020.
Erlund I, Koli R, Alfthan G, et al. Favorable effects of berry consumption on platelet function, blood pressure, and HDL cholesterol. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87(2):323-331.
Aboonabi A, Meyer RR, Gaiz A, Singh I. Anthocyanins in berries exhibited anti-atherogenicity and antiplatelet activities in a metabolic syndrome population. Nutr Res. 2020;76:82-93.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Oats. Accessed Aug. 2, 2022.
Rodriguez-Leyva D, Weighell W, Edel AL, et al. Potent antihypertensive action of dietary flaxseed in hypertensive patients. Hypertension. 2013;62(6):1081-1089.
Parikh M, Netticadan T, Pierce GN. Flaxseed: its bioactive components and their cardiovascular benefits. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol. 2018;314(2):H146-H159.
Khandouzi, N., Zahedmehr, A., Mohammadzadeh, A. et al. Effect of flaxseed consumption on flow-mediated dilation and inflammatory biomarkers in patients with coronary artery disease: a randomized controlled trial. Eur J Clin Nutr 73, 258–265 (2019).
Caligiuri SP, Rodriguez-Leyva D, Aukema HM, et al. Dietary Flaxseed Reduces Central Aortic Blood Pressure Without Cardiac Involvement but Through Changes in Plasma Oxylipins. Hypertension. 2016;68(4):1031-1038.
Pacheco LS, Li Y, Rimm EB, et al. Avocado Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease in US Adults. J Am Heart Assoc. 2022;11(7):e024014.
American Heart Association. Tips for Cutting Down on Sugar. Last Reviewed: Apr 17, 2018.

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