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Eat Your Heart Out

Best and Worst Foods for Heart Health

Is your diet as heart healthy as you think? You've been keeping up with the latest research on the healing power of certain foods. You're following through with a New Year's resolution for a healthier diet. Everything seems to be in place for a heart-healthy year. Not so fast.

Some foods have a "hidden agenda" and may not always be as healthy as you think. And there may be heart-healthy food options that you are not taking advantage of. Here's your opportunity for a quick assessment.

Liz Moore, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian with BIDMC's CardioVascular Institute, has compiled a list of the five worst and five best foods for heart. The results may surprise you.

Liz's List of Five Worst Foods for the Heart

1. Pickles: While they are made from good-for-you cucumbers, pickles are extremely high in sodium. An average pickle contains close to 1,000 mg of sodium. Salt in the diet can increase blood pressure, which raises your risk for heart and blood vessel diseases. The recommended daily intake for sodium is a maximum of 2,300 mg a day, but adults who are over 50 or have high blood pressure or heart disease should consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day (about 2/3 teaspoon). You say you never use salt? Don't be so sure. "Only 5-10% of the salt we use comes from the shaker," said Moore. "The rest of the salt in our diets comes from packaged or processed foods or dining out." So when you're ordering a sandwich, remember to add three magic words: "Hold the pickle."

2. Salad Dressing: You're on a diet, knowing that excess weight can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, which can lead to trouble for your cardiovascular system. So you have a salad for lunch or dinner. But a healthy green salad can turn into a disreputable bed of saturated fat, sodium and calories with a generous topping of the wrong dressing. Creamy dressings tend to be the worst. Stay with oil-based salad dressings, particularly olive oil, and read labels to avoid unwanted sodium and sugar. The standard serving size is two tablespoons - for that portion, salt should be no more than 300 mg. You should also avoid any dressing that lists high fructose corn syrup as one of the first four ingredients. "The best option is to mix your own olive oil and vinegar dressing, flavoring it with herbs and spices and keeping portions light," said Moore.

3. Muffins and Bagels: A muffin for breakfast seems like a healthy choice. The truth is that muffins are a type of cake, with little nutritional value. And those sold as "low fat" may not have much less fat than standard muffins. Most muffins have a total of 300-500 calories, 10-20 grams of fat (some of it unhealthy saturated or trans fat) and 5-10 teaspoons of sugars. A bagel has less fat than a muffin, but it is equally high in refined carbs and often sized at the equivalent of four slices of bread. "Refined carbohydrates can increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease," said Moore. " Whole grains, on the other hand, contain healthy fiber and help to reduce total cholesterol and high blood pressure levels."

4. Soda, Regular and Diet: The negatives of drinking regular soda are obvious: It's high in sugar and has no nutritional value. Soda is also linked to increased triglycerides, a type of fat found in your blood that can raise your risk of heart disease. But switching to diet soda may be no better. Regularly drinking diet sodas increases the chance of becoming overweight or obese, according to the San Antonio Heart Study, a 25-year, community-based, epidemiologic study conducted at The University of Texas Health Science Center (1). The study found that for each diet soda participants drank per day, their risk of becoming overweight within the next eight years rose by 65 percent - however, the study did not determine the reason for this. "One reason could be that eating or drinking anything without nutritional value doesn't satisfy hunger for long, since the body is not receiving what it really needs," said Moore.

5. Protein/Energy Bars: Packed with nuts, seeds and protein powder, an energy bar seems like a great alternative for a quick snack. But watch those labels. Some are loaded with as much fat and sugar as a candy bar. They may have vitamins and minerals added to the mix, but you are always better off snacking on real food, like a handful of nuts or raisins with a few whole wheat crackers.

Fortunately, there are plenty of heart-healthy alternatives for meals and snacks. And making good food choices directly affects your heart and cardiovascular system, according to Moore. "A healthy diet and regular exercise can improve your health for a lifetime and may prevent or decrease the need for medication." To make sure you're on the right track, here's a list of the top heart-friendly foods.

Liz's List of Five Best Foods for the Heart

1. Salmon: This delicious fish is rich in omega 3 fatty acids, which may help to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Omega 3 also works to prevent hardening of walls of arteries and veins, which can reduce the chance of heart attack.

2. Walnuts: According to a study conducted by Penn State University, walnuts and walnut oil lower bad cholesterol levels and decrease the chance of blood vessel inflammation in people who are susceptible to cardiovascular diseases (2). In fact, the FDA has stated that eating 1.5 oz. of walnuts (about 10) per day-as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and without increasing calorie intake-may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

3. Beans: One cup of any type of beans (green, garbanzo, navy or others) provides 13 grams of fiber, half of what we need daily. "Beans are high in protein and potassium and linked to lowering cholesterol and blood pressure levels," according to Moore. Beans are also a source of magnesium and antioxidants. If using canned beans, Moore recommends using low-sodium varieties or rinsing with cold water in a colander for a full minute.

4. Pomegranates: Researchers have found that pomegranates are high in antioxidants that can keep bad LDL cholesterol from oxidizing (a process that can lead to atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries") (3). More recent research has found that 8.5 ounces of pomegranate juice daily for three months improved the amount of oxygen getting to the heart muscle of patients with coronary heart disease (4).

5. Quinoa: This grain, pronounced keen-wah, has a flavor that's a blend of brown rice and couscous. "Quinoa is a super food," said Moore. "It's not only high in protein, but it's a complete protein, which means that it includes all nine essential amino acids. It's also packed with lysine, which promotes tissue repair and growth, and fiber, which helps lower bad or LDL cholesterol." Quinoa is also a good source of magnesium, the mineral that relaxes blood vessels, helping to prevent atherosclerosis. It's a great dinner-plate substitute for potatoes, rice or other starches.

In addition to these top-of-the-line heart-healthy foods, Moore recommends minimizing meat and getting more protein from beans, fish and quinoa. She also advises you to use plant or nut-based oils, and eat whole grains and plenty of produce.

"The people I typically see who have experienced a heart-related event are naturally very motivated to improve their health," said Moore. "But the ideal scenario is to commit to good-health practices to prevent cardiovascular problems from happening in the first place. I tell patients they are in control of taking steps to benefit their health - the outcome is up to them."

(1) San Antonio Heart Study
(2) Study conducted by Penn State University
(3) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
(4) Preventive Medicine Research Institute

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted February 2011

Contact Information

CardioVascular Institute at
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215