Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the United States. A whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet low in sodium and free fats has been conclusively shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Which foods are the stars and stewards of healthy hearts?
The list below gives our “Top 10” heart healthy foods. Each item has valuable medical as well as gastronomic attributes that makes them integral ingredients to include in any diet that promotes and maintains heart health.
Oats are high in fiber and possess well-researched and documented cholesterol-reducing properties. Additionally, studies have shown that oats in collaboration with vitamin C prevent HDL (“good”) cholesterol oxidation – thus fighting the progression of heart disease. Oats are a versatile whole grain that provides substance and earthiness in dishes beyond a standard breakfast staple.
Increasing the levels of omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to reduce the occurrence of CVD. In a WFPB diet, flaxseeds provide an invaluable and rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have also shown that daily consumption of flaxseeds may help maintain a lower blood pressure. Flaxseeds have wonderful binding qualities that make them a useful substitute for eggs and processed flours.
Berries contain high amounts of polyphenols. Studies have shown that most berries are low in calories and high in moisture and fiber. They contain natural antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, and micronutrients – all essential for heart health. Berries bring bright and fresh acidity to any dish.
4. Dark Leafy Greens
Adding dark leafy greens (and black-eyed peas) to your diet in the New Year will help set the vibe for more than general health and prosperity. A diet rich in dark leafy greens (collards, mustards, kale, spinach, etc.) provides valuable folate – A B vitamin that promotes heart health. Additionally, dark Leafy greens have low glycemic indices and low caloric profiles, which makes them particularly beneficial in maintaining a healthy weight. Dark leafy greens are an ideal addition to soups, salads, grain dishes, and braised dishes.
Pomegranates have been shown to be a rich source of potent antioxidants which act against several types of free radicals. Additionally, pomegranates help protect against the oxidation of HDL (“good”) cholesterol and help reduce blood pressure. The brilliant color, earthiness, and acidity in pomegranates provide many culinary applications from chutneys, sauces, stews, and are bright additions to salads.
6. Walnuts or Almonds
Nuts contain unsaturated fatty acids and help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Specifically, walnuts and almonds are rich in vitamins, minerals, and heart-healthy fats. They are, however, also high in calories – so they must be consumed in moderate portions. The natural richness in nuts help make dishes become satisfying and decadent without the guilt of consuming a heart-unhealthy ingredient.
All legumes are rich in minerals and fiber – beans being especially so. Because beans do not contain saturated fats and are rich in protein, they provide our bodies with healthy nutrition and satiation. Beans are a deliciously versatile component to help maintain a heart-healthy diet. Because they are versatile in picking up the flavors added to them, it is no surprise that beans are an essential ingredient in many cuisines.
Foods containing soy protein have been shown to reduce cholesterol even as the precise mechanisms are still being actively researched. Edamame and soy protein are good examples of ingredients that can be easily incorporated into a heart-healthy diet. Soy is one of the most important sources of “umami” and texture – each a desired sensation that helps us perceive food as being tasty.
9. Plant Sterols
These compounds naturally found in plant cell membranes are similar in chemical structure to the human body’s cholesterol. When our diet is plant-based, the plant sterols compete with cholesterol for absorption into our digestive system resulting in a blocking and hence, reduction of cholesterol absorption. Plants are simply delicious.
10. Beets & Beet Greens
Beets (juice, root, and leaves) are naturally concentrated in nitrates, which have been shown to reduce blood pressure and increase oxygen levels. A diet that includes all edible aspects of beets helps increase oxygen levels and improve overall cardiovascular function. Beets are colorful, earthy, sweet, and loaded with umami. The greens are fantastic when simply cooked with lemon, garlic, and red pepper flakes (optional), or as additions to soups and grain dishes.
Maintaining a WFPB diet may seem restrictive and challenging, however, the reality could not be further from that myth. By incorporating aromatics, spices, acidity, natural sugars, diverse ingredients, and global culinary inspirations into whole foods that are plant-based, food will be unbelievably delicious and good for you.
Hari Pulapaka is a professional chef and co-founder of Cress Restaurant. In 2017, Hari launched a company, Global Cooking School, LLC. Born and raised in Mumbai, he acquired an Associate of Applied Science in the Culinary Arts from Le Cordon Bleu-Orlando in 2004. Hari is a Worldchefs Certified Master Chef and Certified Executive Chef of the American Culinary Federation with four James Beard Award semifinalist nods as Best Chef-South and multiple Food & Wine People’s Best Chef recognitions.
Dr. Jenneffer Pulapaka, DPM, is a Board Certified Physician Diplomate in Lifestyle Medicine. As a trained podiatric surgical fellow specializing in diabetic and vascular disease limb salvage, she is the founder of DeLand Foot and Leg Center. A Certified Sommelier, she has 15+ years of experience in menu planning and event design in the restaurant industry. She is also certified in Plant-Based Nutrition and Culinary Coaching. Jenneffer frequently lectures nationally to doctors & nurses on healthy eating for patient wellness and recovery.