With all of the media reports around diseases like cancer and dementia, you may think that those conditions are the leading cause of death in America. But that’s not the case. In fact, the condition responsible for claiming the most lives—not just in the U.S., but around the world—is actually cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). This broad category includes heart attacks and strokes (1), and in 2015, 17.7 million people — or 31 percent of all deaths — were attributed to CVDs.
Even more frightening is the fact that the people most likely to experience a heart attack or stroke are those who have risk factors that are now quite common in America, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type-2 diabetes, and overweight or obesity.
While a family history of CVDs may increase your risk of a heart attack or a stroke, the truth is that you can reverse the other major risk factors for cardiovascular disease. For example, people who are overweight, particularly in the waist area, are likelier to develop heart disease or a stroke even with no other risk factors present. (2) So simply taking the steps to start an exercise program and make healthier food choices can help shed those extra pounds and also minimize CVD risk.
With so many risk factors for heart attacks and stroke related to a well-rounded diet, it’s important to take a close look at what you’re eating — and what you aren’t — for stroke prevention and a healthy heart. In fact, I’ve compiled a list of the eight best foods to help prevent these deadly diseases.
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Not only are almonds portable—making them a great choice for a healthy snack—but these nuts are terrific when it comes to lowering your risk of CVDs. The antioxidants found in almond skin team up with vitamin E to improve your arteries’ health and reduce inflammation. Almonds have also been shown to consistently reduce levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol, particularly in people with high cholesterol and diabetes. (3) Eat them on their own, slice them into a salad, or replace your peanut butter with almond butter.
As if you needed another reason to eat more guacamole, avocados have been proven help maintain a healthy heart. Both avocados and avocado oil (which has prescription drug status in France!) are packed with monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), also known as the healthy fats your body loves. Getting enough MUFAs keeps arteries from hardening, which ultimately restricts blood flow. Eating avocados has also been linked with lower metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. (4) Spread avocado on sprouted toast, chop into your salad, or enjoy it on its own with a little salt.
You might have read recently that coconut oil isn’t good for you. But coconut oil has been found to bump levels of HDL (the good cholesterol) while also helping patients with heart disease lose weight. (5) More importantly, while cholesterol levels might affect a person’s chance of CVDs, they’re not the only risk factor. Chronic inflammation is a major one, as inflammation is the root cause of most diseases, including heart disease. Additionally, one study on rats found that coconut oil helped reduce chronic inflammation, suggesting that coconut oil is helpful as an anti-inflammatory. (6) Swap out your unhealthy vegetable oils for coconut oil instead.
If this brightly colored vegetable isn’t already in your diet, it should be. What makes eggplant so special is that it contains an antioxidant, nasunin, that isn’t found it too many other foods. It’s found in the skin of eggplants and helps to diminish damage from free radicals, which contributes to disease.
Nasunin is also really effective at reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, which keeps arteries clear and lowers high cholesterol levels—in turn, preventing heart disease. In one study on the effects of eggplant, researchers found that rabbits who were treated with eggplant had lower bad cholesterol levels and triglycerides than the rabbits who didn’t receive eggplant, including in their artery walls. While people obviously aren’t rabbits, this study lends credence to the idea that eggplant is good for the heart. (7) Eggplant is delicious when roasted or used as the base for veggie dishes, like this gluten-free eggplant parmesan recipe.
These legumes are a nutritional powerhouse. Not only are they inexpensive and full of nutrients like fiber and protein, but they’re also terrific for stroke prevention. Lentils are naturally low in fat and sodium—two key aspects of a heart-healthy diet—and the soluble fiber they contain can prevent hypertension and lower bad cholesterol levels. This helps to reduce the risk of plaque build-up and artery damage, both of which increase your chances of a heart attack or stroke. (8) All that fiber also means you’ll feel fuller, longer, which can help you lose weight faster. Try making a lentil soup or a lentil-based dip.
When you eat wild-caught salmon, you’re eating one of the best foods for your overall health. Salmon is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation throughout your body. And less inflammation means a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. Additionally, one serving of salmon contains more than a day’s worth of vitamin D. (9) It is important to remember, however, that not all salmon is good for you. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is the nutrient-packed way to go, as farm-raised fish is full of toxins, pesticides, and mercury.
If you enjoy a glass of red after work, you may be unknowingly giving your heart health a boost. The antioxidants found in red wine can slow down atherosclerosis, which happens when fats, cholesterol and plaque build up in the artery walls. (10) Additionally, resveratrol, one of the compounds in red wine, keeps platelets from building up, decreases the accumulation of cholesterol, and relaxes coronary arteries. (11) Wine is certainly part of a healthy diet—as long as you’re drinking in moderation.
Leafy greens like spinach are on nearly every one of my lists to reduce disease. They’re just that good for you. Spinach, in particular, is a superstar at reducing inflammation, thanks to two particular antioxidants it contains: neoxanthin and violaxanthin. It also helps improve the functions of nitric acid, which keeps your heart healthy by reducing blood pressure and improving circulation. (12) Also, spinach is high in fiber, which lowers cholesterol levels and keeps glucose from being absorbed too rapidly into the bloodstream. To get more spinach into your diet, add a few handfuls of spinach to your morning smoothie or use it as a base for salads.
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