If you’re a generally healthy 20-something, chances are the only time you really worry about your heart is when you’re going through a breakup. (Hey, we feel your pain). But your ticker deserves more attention than that—especially considering around 600,000 people in the U.S. die from heart disease every year, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women in this country. And simply being young doesn’t protect you from heart disease risks.
In fact, almost half of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have at least one coronary heart disease risk factor—such as high blood pressure, stress, or an unhealthy diet—which is pretty scary considering these factors can strongly predict a long-term risk of coronary heart disease. Coronary heart disease risk factors in college students. Arts, J, Fernandez, ML, and Lofgren, IE. Advances in Nutrition, 2014 Mar 1;5(2):177-87 Coronary heart disease risk factors in college students. Arts, J., Fernandez, M.L., Lofgren, I.E. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal, 2014 Mar;5(2):177-87. Even having a slightly elevated blood pressure level in your 20s may increase the risk of developing clogged arteries down the line.
Not to get all fear-mongery, but what this means is that the habits and behaviors we establish when we’re young really can catch up to us—and those include YOLO-justified moments, like ordering an extra drink (or three) and skipping the gym for an all-day Netflix session. That’s not to say that sometimes we don’t need to watch TV all day, or have an extra drink every once in a while. But research shows that people who maintain heart-healthy behaviors—not smoking, drinking in moderation, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and keeping a lean BMI—throughout their lives have a low cardiovascular risk profile well into middle age. The bottom line: What you do now, you feel later.
The good news for young people is that about 80 percent of heart disease can be prevented through healthy diet and lifestyle choices. Coronary heart disease risk factors in college students. Arts, J., Fernandez, M.L., Lofgren, I.E. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal, 2014 Mar;5(2):177-87. That means hitting the gym, quitting smoking, cutting back on any boozehound tendencies, and—perhaps most importantly—cleaning up your nutrition plan. Apart from ditching salty and processed foods, it’s a great idea to load up on eats that actually help your heart. Here, the list to live by.
The 12 Best Foods for Your Heart
As if you needed another reason to love avocados, the creamy green superfood is also good for the heart. They’re jam-packed with monounsaturated fatty acids, which help lower cholesterol levels and may help prevent blood clotting. They also contain potassium, which may help control blood pressure, and magnesium, which has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease in men. Hass Avocado Composition and Potential Health Effects. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, May 2013; 53(7): 738-750. Adding some avocado to your meal can also help to increase satiety and satisfaction, which may help with weight management—another way to keep your heart healthy in the long run.
It’s almost asparagus season—and that’s great news for your taste buds and your heart. The superfood contains vitamin K, which can help with blood clotting, and potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure. It also boasts two nutrients that help lower blood cholesterol: soluble fiber and saponins (nutrients that stop the digestive tract from absorbing cholesterol as easily).
3. Dark Chocolate
Chocoholics, rejoice! Because of the flavanoids—antioxidants that can help suppress LDL, or “bad” cholesterol—present in chocolate, indulging in a square or two may decrease your risk of stroke (Experts recommend sticking to one ounce per day, two to three times per week). Nibbling on the sweet stuff can also keep your heart strong by keeping arteries flexible and preventing white blood cells from adhering to the walls of blood vessels. Both of these benefits help prevent atherosclerosis, the hardening of arteries that can lead to heart attack or stroke. Just remember to stick to dark chocolate—your best bet is one with a cacao content above 70 percent.
4. Fatty Fish
While a recent study casts some doubt on whether eating fatty acids has heart-healthy benefits, a lot of research suggests foods containing this nutrient have a long history of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Case in point: Recent research links a fatty fish-rich diet with a lower risk of coronary artery calcification, which can lead to heart disease. Yet another study suggests the polyunsaturated fatty acids found in fatty fish lower blood pressure and resting heart rate, and may also improve vascular function and lower inflammation. And the American Heart Association still suggests adding fish—particularly fatty fish, like salmon and albacore tuna—to your plate two times per week.
It’s totally worth the vampire-repelling breath! Not only does garlic add a kick of flavor to any dish, but it also reduces cholesterol and blood pressure and improves blood flow. You might want to stick to fresh garlic to reap the most benefits, though. While both fresh and processed garlic help with promoting healthy blood flow in the heart, research suggests that fresh, crushed garlic is more effective (though it’s worth noting that it was a study done in mice).
It’s a mean, green, heart-disease-fighting machine! Among its other health benefits, kale (one of our favorite superfoods) is especially good for heart health. The leafy green is a great source of a specific kind of fat (yes, fat!) called alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that’s known to improve heart health. Does alpha-linolenic acid intake reduce the risk of coronary heart disease? A review of the evidence. Mozaffarian D., Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2005 May-Jun;11(3):24-30 It’s also got inflammation-fighting phytonutrients that can help prevent plaque formation on your arteries. As if that weren’t enough, kale is also rich in lutein, a nutrient that’s been shown to protect against atherosclerosis (again, that’s the hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart attack or stroke).
Thanks to their high fiber, folate, and magnesium content, superfood lentils may boost heart health and reduce the risk of heart disease. It’s because of these nutrients that legumes like these little guys have been shown to reduce inflammation. Anti-inflammatory effects of plant-based foods and of their constituents. Watzl, B. Department of Physiology and Biochemistry of Nutrition, Max Rubner-Institute, Federal Research Institute of Nutrition and Food, Karlsruhe, Germany. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 2008 Dec;78(6):293-8. and decrease the risk of death by heart disease by as much as a whopping 82 percent. While magnesium helps lower blood pressure, folate lowers the level of a damaging amino acid in the bloodstream.
Go ahead and get a little nutty. Eating nuts every day decreases the risk of dying from heart disease by 29 percent (as compared to people who didn’t eat them over a period of 30 years). How do such little things have such a huge effect? They contain unsaturated fats, which improve cholesterol by lowering “bad” cholesterol and raising the good kind. Walnuts, in particular, contain omega-3 fatty acids, which may prevent blood clots and the development of irregular heart rhythms. Nuts also contain an amino acid that helps ease blood flow—proof that something small can be mighty. Find out how your favorite nuts stack up nutritionally—just take a look at this guide!
9. Olive Oil
Olive oil, a staple in Mediterranean cuisine (which has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease on more than one occasion), also contains monounsaturated fatty acids. The same study that calls fatty fish to the question also suggests eating olive oil might not lead to less heart disease. That said, as with fatty fish, past research suggests otherwise—and nutrition experts continue to encourage eating foods from the Mediterranean diet—including olive oil. Plus, these fatty acids are loaded with vitamin E, a free radical-fighting vitamin that more than 90 percent of Americans don’t get enough of.
Orange you glad this citrusy fruit is so good for you? Though we typically turn to oranges for cold prevention, this fruit is also a great food for your heart, thanks to two different nutrients: pectin and potassium. Pectin, a soluble fiber, basically blocks cholesterol absorption and helps prevent the scarring of heart tissue, while potassium can help keep blood pressure in check.
11. Red Wine
The perfect excuse to pour it up, (in moderation, of course): Wine is good for your ticker. While alcohol in general has been shown to increase “good” HDL cholesterol, red wine in particular—due to its polyphenol content—is a heart-healthy superdrink that may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Red wine: A drink to your heart. Saleem, T.S., Basha S.D., Journal of Cardiovascular Disease Research, 2010 Oct;1(4):171-6. If vino’s not your thing, sip on a dark beer like Guiness stout—it contains many of the same good-for-you polyphenols.
12. Whole Grains
Pass the (whole grain) bread, please. The American Heart Association recommends including whole grains, such as whole-grain bread, popcorn, and brown rice, in your diet. These good-for-you grains contain fiber, which has been associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Effects of whole grains on coronary heart disease risk. Harris K.A., Kris-Etherton P.M. Current Atherosclerosis Reports, 2010 Nov; 12(6):368-76. Plus, whole grains high in soluble fiber, such as oatmeal, decrease LDL cholesterol and blood pressure, while whole grains high in insoluble fiber, such as whole-wheat bread, also lower blood pressure. Effects of whole grains on coronary heart disease risk. Harris K.A., Kris-Etherton P.M. Current Atherosclerosis Reports, 2010 Nov; 12(6):368-76.