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5 Top Foods for Your Heart, Plus 1 to Avoid

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By Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN

Seems like a new study comes out nearly every day telling us to eat this, not that. But when it comes to your heart's health, you have to take the headlines with, well, a grain of salt. "There’s not one magic food," says Jimmy Kontos, MD, interventional cardiologist at 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 you should try for your ticker—and one you should skip.

Salmon and Other Fatty Fish

2 / 7 Salmon and Other Fatty Fish

The omega-3 fatty acids (specifically the EPA and DHA) found in fatty fish help to reduce the type of chronic inflammation that leads to heart disease and many other diseases, including cancer and 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. Not into fish? Try plant sources such as walnuts and chia or hemp seeds. Steer clear of over-the-counter fish oil supplements, Kontos warns: They're not concentrated enough to have an impact. 

Worried about mercury? Here's the fish to pick or skip.

Berries

3 / 7 Berries

Sweet and delicious, berries aren’t simply tasty, but also important in the fight against heart disease. As Dr. Kontos notes, “Berries—especially blueberries and raspberries—are important because they increase insulin sensitivity, help increase nitric oxide, decrease LDL cholesterol and decrease the ability of blood to clot.” It’s unclear exactly what it is about berries that create all these benefits, but they boast fiber, anthocyanins, flavanols and vitamins. And all of these components add up to one big juicy benefit: a lower risk of heart disease. 

Oats

4 / 7 Oats

You probably know oats are good for your ticker—but you may be eating the wrong kind. “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. But for a healthy heart, "it's gotta be steel-cut oatmeal, with no additives," he explains. “A pouch of peaches and cream instant oats isn’t going to give you the beneficial effects.”

Flax Seeds

5 / 7 Flax Seeds

These mighty seeds have become synonymous with a healthy diet, and for good reason. Rich in lignans and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) omega-3, flax seeds boast anti-inflammatory benefits and help lower blood pressure—all of which is great for your heart. Kontos explains the science behind the benefits: “They make the lining of your arteries healthier by dilating them with nitric oxide,” he says.

Avocados

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As if you needed another reason to love your guac, here's one more: avocados are good for your heart. That's because they're rich in monounsaturated fats, which help fight inflammation. As Kontos explains, inflammation markers 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.

Cut the Sugar

7 / 7 Cut the Sugar

What's the one dietary change you can make 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, he suggests simple things, like swapping water for sugary drinks, and satisfying a sweet tooth with an apple or orange instead of a cookie or donut. Read 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, which can all indicate sugar.

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