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18 Foods That Help Improve the Cardiovascular System

Super foods that improve and promote heart health

This section of HealWithFood.org's Guide to Maintaining a Healthy Cardiovascular System presents 18 superfoods with a nutrient profile that is particularly well suited for improving cardiovascular health. These foods are naturally rich in cardiotonic vitamins and other heart health protecting nutrients. For more information about nutrients that help improve the cardiovascular system by regulating cholesterol levels and blood pressure, visit the section Best Vitamins for Heart Health of this Guide. For healthy recipes that call for heart healthy super foods — such as those presented on this page — check out our Collection of Recipes for Preventing CVD.

Blueberries
The anthocyanins in blueberries promote cardiovascular health.

#1: Blueberries

Blueberries, which have gained a reputation as a superfood, are one of the best foods for improving the cardiovascular system. Due to their high concentration of anthocyanins, blueberries effectively scavenge free radicals, repair damaged proteins in blood vessel walls, and promote the overall health of the vascular system. Anthocyanins also enhance the effects of the vitamin C contained in blueberries. On top of that, blueberries are a good source of both soluble and insoluble fiber such as pectin. Furthermore, compared to other berries, blueberries (especially wild blueberries) are a good source of vitamin E.


#2: Cranberry Juice

Although not a food, cranberry juice appears on this list of the Top 18 Foods That Help Improve Cardiovascular System due to its proven ability to protect and improve the cardiovascular system. One study with nineteen subjects with high cholesterol levels found that drinking three glasses of cranberry juice a day would on average increase the amount of good cholesterol by 10%. Based on previous studies, the researchers estimated that this increase would correspond to an approximate 40% reduction in heart disease risk. Further, cranberry juice was found to significantly increase plasma antioxidant capacity, which is also associated with a lower risk of heart disease.


Flaxseed
Did you know flaxseeds can help keep your arteries healthy?

#3: Flaxseeds

Turbo-charge your heart-healthy diet by adding flaxseeds to your breakfast cereal or yoghurt – these small nutty-tasting seeds are one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent hardening of arteries and reduce atherosclerotic plaque build-up. Moreover, flaxseeds have been shown to exhibit cholesterol lowering effects. Preliminary research also suggests that these little nutritional powerhouse seeds may also help normalize the heartbeat. To reap most of flaxseeds' health benefits, grind them before adding them to your food (electric coffee grinders are great for this purpose). Whole seeds pass through the intestinal tract largely undigested, which means your body won't get all the beneficial nutrients.


#4: Celery

Celery is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat high blood pressure, but in recent years also Western scientists have shown interest in the potential beneficial effects of this lovely vegetable on blood pressure. One study found that injecting laboratory animals with celery lowered the test animals' blood pressure by more than 10%. The amount of celery used in this animal test would correspond to approximately four stalks in humans. Celery is known for being rich in potassium, but that is hardly the only blood pressure lowering substance celery provides. Celery also contains butyl phthalide, a phytochemical compound that gives this popular dipping snack its distinctive taste and smell. It is also a great source of luteolin, a flavonoid that has been shown to prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. When buying celery, opt for organically grown produce whenever possible — together with bell peppers celery tops the list of vegetables that contain the highest levels of contaminants, including neurotoxic pesticides and the potentially carcinogenic substance chlorothalonil.


#5: Tomatoes

Tomatoes
Lycopene, abundant in tomatoes, has been linked to a lowered risk of heart attack.

Tomatoes contain several extraordinary properties that make them one of the best foods for improving the cardiovascular system. Their most notable quality: they supply lycopene which is a very strong antioxidant. One study found that men with the largest amount of lycopene in their body fat were half as likely to have a heart attack as those who had the lowest concentration of lycopene in their body fat. The amount of lycopene in body fat is an indicator of lycopene content in the diet. When incorporating tomato products into your diet, be aware that lycopene from processed tomato products — such as tomato paste, tomato juice, and catsup — is more bioavailable than lycopene from raw tomatoes. Furthermore, lycopene is better absorbed by the body in the presence of beta-carotene. Coincidentally, tomatoes also contain beta-carotene!


Walnuts
Walnuts help protect the heart.

#6: Walnuts

Nuts have long been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and evidence suggests that just five ounces of nuts a week can reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems by up to 50%. While all nuts appear to be beneficial, walnuts have been found to be particularly good for the heart. Walnuts have been shown to lower triglycerides, prevent blood clots, and reduce blood pressure. When incorporating walnuts in your diet, keep in mind that they are calorie-dense and therefore moderation should be exercised.


#7: Green Tea

There is some evidence suggesting that a high consumption of green tea can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that test subjects who took green tea extract supplements had lower blood pressures after the three week trial period. Their systolic blood pressure dropped on average by 5 mmHg and diastolic by 4 mmHg. Further, the test subjects total cholesterol levels dropped by 10 mg/dL. Another study, conducted on animals, found that polyphenol compounds in green tea could block the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines and promote its excretion from the body. When buying green tea, choose loose tea leaves instead of tea bags as the release of polyphenols is better from loose leaves. You may also want to add a bit of lemon juice or other vitamin C rich juice to your tea — research suggests that vitamin C can increase the amount of polyphenols available for the body to absorb.


#8: Broccoli

Broccoli
Broccoli contains sulforaphane which protects arteries.

The nutritional value of broccoli makes this superfood one of the best foods to eat on a regular basis if your goal is to improve your cardiovascular system and to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. A group of British scientists found that sulforaphane — a compound occurring naturally in broccoli — can activate Nrf2, a protective protein that is typically inactive in parts of the arteries prone to clogging. Broccoli sprouts, which are available at many health food stores and some grocery stores, are particularly rich in sulforaphane, but also broccoli florets provide significant amounts. Fresh broccoli sprouts make a great addition to salads, soups, salsa-topped dishes, and sandwiches.


#9: Dark Chocolate

Great news for chocolate lovers: a moderate consumption of dark chocolate appears to lower blood pressure. Further, eating a few squares of dark chocolate every day has been shown to reduce the LDL cholesterol level by almost 10%. This is not surprising since dark chocolate, which contains flavonoids similar to those found in red wine and green tea, is one of the most antioxidant-rich foods known to man. According to studies, dark chocolate (in the form of cacao powder) contains up to three times the amount of antioxidants found in green tea and nearly twice the antioxidants of red wine. Milk appears to interfere with the absorption of antioxidants from chocolate, and therefore milk chocolate and dark chocolate eaten with milk do not seem to have the same antioxidant effect. In addition to antioxidant compounds, dark chocolate is an excellent source of potassium and copper, two minerals that play an important role in maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system. When planning your heart healthy diet, keep in mind that chocolate is still a high-calorie, high-fat food, and therefore moderation should be exercised when consuming chocolate. Also most of the studies investigating the benefits of chocolate on cardiovascular health were based on small serving sizes.


Buckwheat
Rutin and other flavonoids in buckwheat can lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

#10: Buckwheat

People who eat buckwheat on a regular basis have been shown to have a lowered risk of developing high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The beneficial effects of buckwheat on cardiovascular health are largely attributable to rutin and other flavonoids found in buckwheat. Flavonoids are phytochemicals that protect from cardiovascular disease by maintaining blood flow and preventing blood clotting. Buckwheat groats can be used to make porridge, and buckwheat flour (aka beechwheat, kasha, and saracen corn) can be used for making baked goods. Buckwheat groats contain only 92 calories per 100 grams and are loaded with protein, which also makes them an excellent weight loss aid. Further, not only is buckwheat high in protein, but the protein it contains includes all 8 essential amino acids, all of which are needed for tissue repair.


Continue (Foods 11-18)

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