Best (and worst) foods for your heart

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Story highlights

Tree nuts are a superb source of protein and provide necessary nutrients

People who eat legumes daily have a 22% lower risk of heart disease

Diets high in saturated fat boost blood cholesterol levels  — 

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States – a respectable reason to show your heart some love and attention. To keep your ticker in tip-top shape, add these best foods to your daily health routine – and kick the worst to the curb.

Best: Nuts

Tree nuts are a superb source of protein and provide nutrients necessary for your heart’s health. The nourishing unsaturated fats help to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and boost HDL (good) cholesterol.

Furthermore, nuts are rich in arginine, an amino acid that makes nitric oxide. This gas relaxes blood vessels and supports blood flow. Still not convinced? Crunch on this sweet statistic: Devoted nut eaters are 25% less likely to die from heart disease than those who don’t eat nuts.

How to enjoy: To satisfy a need for crunch, sprinkle nuts atop a salad. When snacking, try fruit slices dipped in a creamy nut butter or a shot glass-size serving of whole nuts.

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Best: Beans

Recent studies have shown that those who consume legumes on a daily basis have a 22% lower risk of developing heart disease than those who rarely do. And here’s why: Beans are packed with cholesterol- and blood pressure-lowering soluble fiber, and contain heart-smart nutrients such as folate, a vitamin that helps reduce blood homocysteine (a biomarker for heart disease). And let’s not forget how easily beans stand in for animal protein, which is often loaded with saturated fat.

How to enjoy: Use hummus as a condiment in potato salads, or get creative by adding garbanzo-bean flour to cake, cookie and muffin batters.

Best: Chocolate

Not that we need another reason to indulge in dark chocolate, but: Cacao contains flavonoids (metabolites that promote healthy blood circulation and supple arteries) and polyphenols (antioxidants that reduce inflammation and risk of atherosclerosis). It’s also a good source of magnesium, a mineral essential for normal heart function.

Take note, however: All chocolate is not created equal when it comes to nutrition. Be sure to select products that are at least 70% cacao.

How to enjoy: For breakfast, add cacao powder to a green smoothie, or end dinner with a one-ounce square of dark chocolate.

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Worst: Added sugars

Because sugar increases blood pressure and triglyceride levels and leads to weight gain, a sugar-laden diet increases one’s risk of heart disease. “Also, diets high in sugar usually aren’t rich in important nutrients – like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains – that help prevent heart disease and keep your heart healthy,” notes upwave reviewer Tammy Lakatos Shames, a registered dietitian.

Sugar-sweetened beverages, cookies, cakes and pastries are obvious no-nos; sneaky sources of sugar can also include yogurt, ready-to-eat cereals and pasta sauces.

How to avoid: Satisfy your sweet tooth the natural way by savoring a fruit-based dessert. Break a soda habit by drinking sparkling water with a shot glass-size splash of fruit juice.

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Worst: Saturated fat

Diets high in saturated fat boost blood cholesterol levels, which in turn can lead to atherosclerosis. This artery-clogging fat is present in dairy-based butter, sour cream, mayo, fatty cuts of meat, cocoa butter, palm oil, coconut oil and coconut milk.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting saturated fat so it comprises less than 7% of your total daily caloric intake. The key here is moderation: A juicy steak or a dollop of sour cream on a baked potato is fine on occasion.

How to avoid: Instead of butter, spread creamy avocado on whole-grain toast. When making burgers, replace half the ground beef with mushrooms, which provide the same texture and an umami flavor. Meat eaters, why not shift the focus of meals to plant-based proteins or fatty fish, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids?

Note: Yes, trans fat is even worse for you than saturated fat. Luckily, the FDA is working with manufacturers to phase it out of foods.

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Worst: Salt

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, and one in three Americans currently suffers from hypertension. High-sodium diets may be to blame, since excess sodium holds fluid in the body, thereby placing added burden on the heart. How much sodium is too much? The AHA recommends consuming no more than 1,500 mg per day.

How to avoid: Instead of reaching for the salt shaker, enhance the flavor of your food with spices. Skip processed and fast foods and consume potassium-rich (aka blood-pressure-lowering) foods such as potatoes, beans and greens instead.

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Jessica Dogert is a registered dietitian/nutritionist who lives in the Chicago area.