When you hear the word "superfood," your first impression might be it's probably something exotic and expensive. In other words: not something you can easily add to your heart-healthy diet – right?
Wrong. Superfoods are actually common and affordable, meaning they can be incorporated into your everyday eating habits fairly easily.
What Are Superfoods?
Superfoods are nutrient-rich foods that come in many forms, including protein from plant and animal sources, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Superfoods are recommended by nutritionists as healthy choices because they have a relatively large amount of nutritional benefits. They have been shown to help protect your body from conditions such as cancer and heart disease.
With that in mind, here are 5 superfoods recommended by the American Heart Association to improve heart health.
Beans are the new "meat," meaning they are a good source of protein. They contain similar nutrients as those found in meat, fish and poultry, and are also a good source of fiber and minerals.
While beans may not contain the same amount of iron as certain meats do, they have almost no saturated fat – a type of bad fat that can raise cholesterol levels and increase risk of heart disease. On the other hand, animal-based proteins, including red meat and full-fat dairy products, tend to contain saturated fat.
And thanks to their rich fiber content, beans can also protect your digestive system and prevent digestive cancers.
There are many types of beans. They are easy to cook and can be eaten alone or added to soups, salads and casseroles. Beans can be eaten with any meal during the day. If you buy canned beans, rinse thoroughly to remove the excess salt, or go with the no-salt options. This is because salt is a main source of sodium, and excess sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure.
Studies have found a strong link between berries and heart health, particularly blueberries and strawberries. These berries are packed with a chemical compound called anthocyanin that is believed to lower blood pressure and protect blood vessels.
In order to gain the full heart health benefits of these superfoods, researchers recommend eating blueberries and strawberries three times a week.
Unfortunately, berry-flavored baked goods don't count. Bakery items usually contain too much sugar and fat that is harmful to your heart. To get the full superfood benefits of berries, you'll need to put down the blueberry muffin and eat the berries fresh.
3. Dark Leafy Greens
Dark leafy greens are rich in nutrients, vitamins and minerals – especially an important B vitamin called folate that is helpful for heart disease prevention. The benefits of these greens don't stop with heart health – the vitamins and antioxidants found in them can also prevent many types of cancers and strengthen bones.
Most common dark leafy greens can be found at your local grocery store:
- Lettuce (not iceberg or romaine)
- Bok choy
- Salad greens
A bowl of boring, plain leaves may pop into your mind when you think of greens, but a heart-healthy greens dish doesn't have to be tasteless. You can add eggs, salmon, beans, seeds or nuts to enrich the flavor and texture of a salad. Or, you can explore other cooking techniques, such as sauteing, stir-frying or roasting.
4. Food with Good Fats: Nuts, Seeds and Salmon
You've probably heart about the benefits of cutting back on your fat intake, but there are certain fats you may actually want to increase in your diet.
For instance, the fats found in nuts and seeds are mono- and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids that can actually improve your cholesterol and prevent cardiovascular disease.
Salmon is also particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids – a nutrient that can lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of having an abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia). The American Heart Association recommends including a fish meal at least two times a week. If you are not a salmon fan, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines or albacore tuna can substitute and provide a good amount of omega-3.
Oats are a type of whole grain that provide a fiber known as beta glucan to your diet. Fiber is known to help with digestive health, but it can also prevent heart attacks or strokes.
If possible, opt for steel-cut oats. They contain no sodium, sugar or preservatives. Make sure at least half of the grains you eat are whole grains.
Keep in mind that healthy eating can greatly improve your health, but it is not a replacement for prescribed medications for heart conditions or heart disease. And eating superfoods alone may not be enough to fully promote heart health. A balanced diet should include the right amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins, fat and calories to maintain a reasonable body weight.