Few health claims can compare to that exciting moment when nutrition experts gave us an excuse to eat chocolate. The basis of this once-surreal suggestion: research studies demonstrated that the antioxidants found in cocoa beans can indeed protect heart health by lowering blood pressure and reducing the cell damage that causes heart disease!
But before you start feasting on Hershey’s milk chocolate for “medicinal reasons” know this: for heart health you need to be sure to eat the dark chocolate varieties that have a cocoa content of at least 70%. Otherwise, the benefits melt away in your hands and not in your mouth.
So when it comes to chocolate, the rule of thumb is the less processed, the better.
To commemorate National Heart Month, here are other foods that, although not as indulgent as chocolate, offer similar surprising benefits for heart health.
When used in place of animal proteins, beans, peas and lentils have been shown to protect heart health by reducing saturated fat intake from high fat meats and dairy. Unlike their meat counterparts, these nutrition powerhouses provide protein and fiber without any cholesterol and contribute little fat. Substitute beans for meats in recipes or boil a variety of them together and mix with other vegetables for a protein-packed salad.
Although not much of a secret, it is still shocking that nuts are actually a super heart-healthy treat. Nuts were shamed for their high fat content until several studies revealed that regular nut consumption significantly lowers your risk for heart disease. While nuts themselves may be small, they are packed with heart-healthy unsaturated fats, fiber and vitamin E which can improve cholesterol and increase cardiovascular health. But beware: nuts are also crammed with calories. Be sure to stick to the recommended portion (1.5 ounces per day, most days of the week) and follow an overall heart-healthy diet to reap the benefits.
Get creative with your cooking by using fresh herbs like rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme, which are all rich in heart-healthy antioxidants. Fresh garlic and cayenne pepper have also been shown to improve circulation. Replace salt and fat in recipes by seasoning with a mix of herbs to make your dish even heart-healthier.
This fruit is high in monounsaturated fat which can lower your risk of heart disease by raising your good cholesterol (the HDL cholesterol). Avocados also contain a natural plant sterol that can lower total cholesterol. Additionally, these fruits are rich in folate and vitamin E, which are both associated with lower incidence of heart disease. Surprising uses: Add two tablespoons of mashed avocado on top of a sandwich or bagel in place of high fat spreads or cheeses.
Oats are high in soluble fiber, a substance that can help clean your blood vessels by picking up bad cholesterol (the LDL cholesterol) that sticks to blood vessel walls. This clogging collects over time, causing a narrowing of the arteries that is bad for heart health. Make oatmeal a regular way to start your day and top these grains with berries, flaxseed or nuts to maximize heart-healthy benefits.
Salmon and other cold water fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and can protect your blood vessels by reducing inflammation and lowering triglycerides. The American Heart Association recommends eating 3 ounces of fish at least twice a week for improved heart health.
Rebecca Mohning is a Registered Dietitian and an Exercise Physiologist who believes that we can change our metabolism and achieve optimal health through proper nutrition and regular exercise. She has a Master's Degree in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's of Science in Dietetics from Iowa State University. She is a certified Personal Trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine. She specializes in weight management, performance nutrition, and eating disorders.