Which foods are good for the heart?
The heart pumps oxygenated blood around the body to the tissues and organs through blood vessels known as arteries. It's vital that the heartbeat is strong enough to give the blood a good push into the arteries, or the force with which it is propelled around the body will be low and circulation will be sluggish.
Once oxygen and nutrients have been delivered to the organs and tissues, deoxygenated blood and waste is returned to the lungs and heart through blood vessels called veins.
A good diet, alongside regular exercise, minimum stress and low alcohol consumption, can all help to keep the heart in good shape and keep these processes running smoothly.
However, studies show that deaths relating to heart disease are on the rise, so it is important to take steps early on to keep your heart working well.1 A few particular foods are very good for the heart and can, therefore, help with this.
- Chilli peppers.
Tomatoes could offer some protection for the heart due to the presence of lycopene. This is what's known as a carotenoid, or a phytonutrient, and it gives the fruit its distinctive colour, whilst also offering antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Some studies have suggested that lycopene can support cardiovascular health, as well as help to prevent Cardiovascular Disease (CVD).2
In order to reap this benefit, tomatoes should be consumed fresh as there is insufficient evidence to suggest that synthetic lycopene (i.e. lycopene consumed through a supplement) can provide the same benefits for the heart.3 This may be because lycopene has to work together with the other phytonutrients found in tomatoes, such as phytosterols, in order to have a positive effect.
Phytosterols are particularly important as they have been found to have a positive effect on cholesterol metabolism.4 Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood. Too much of it can put us at risk of CVD as it clogs up blood vessels going to and from the heart.
3 tasty ways to use up tomatoes
- Make a homemade tomato sauce. Tomato sauces are great for adding to pasta, meat dishes and even roasted vegetables. You can always freeze leftovers to have on another occasion.
- Make a chutney – you can make this when tomatoes are in season and then keep it in your store cupboard for a few months. Chutneys are great for adding to a sandwich or veggie burger!
- Make your own ketchup – store-bought versions of this store-cupboard favourite can be loaded with sugar, so try making your own healthier version with our fermented tomato ketchup recipe.
A diet high in plenty of wholegrains, in addition to the likes of nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables, is relatively low in dietary cholesterol and saturated fatty acids.5 Saturated fats are particularly problematic for the health of the heart as they can raise cholesterol levels.
In contrast, wholegrains are high in polyunsaturated fats which have a much more favourable effect on cholesterol levels, helping to lower levels and thereby reduce the risk of CVD.
3 ways to eat more wholegrains
- Start by using brown bread, rice or pasta instead of white varieties. Try our cheesy stuffed tomatoes with rice and mushrooms for a different (and particularly heart-healthy!) lunch.
- Bake with wholegrain flour. You'd be surprised by how many recipes work using this flour – muffins, pancakes and pastry are just some examples. If you're really ambitious, you could even make your own wholegrain bread!
- Don't forget about barley – this can be added to soups and stews to make them both satisfying and healthy.
Beetroot is well-known as a heart-friendly food and for good reason, as studies show it can have a positive effect on blood pressure levels.6
Blood pressure measures the force at which blood is pumped around the body. Blood pressure can rise due to factors including stress, excess weight, poor diet and age. If blood pressure goes untreated, it can raise the risk of developing heart problems such as strokes, heart attacks and CVD.
The presence of nitrates within beetroots are thought to contribute to their blood pressure-lowering effects. This is because, when consumed, nitrates are converted to molecule called nitric oxide which can dilate blood vessels, thereby helping improve blood flow and lower blood pressure.
A surprising addition to this list of foods to help the heart is perhaps chilli. Recent research found there was a lower overall risk of CVD, as well as fewer deaths relating to CVD, in a large adult Mediterranean population where individuals regularly consumed chilli peppers.7
The risk of a heart attacked halved in the group who regularly consumed chilli peppers, compared with a control group who did not. The risk of a heart attack, on the other hand, was 40% lower amongst those eating chilli peppers several times a week.
What's particularly interesting about this study is that chilli had a positive effect on the heart, even if the individual's diet wasn't entirely healthy.
3 ways to add more spice to your diet
- Add fresh chillies to pasta sauces, dips, bolognese or a fresh lasagne.
- Make a chilli jam. This can be spread on a sandwich, toast, or whatever takes your fancy!
- Make a spicy soup such as our spicy tomato and red lentil one – perfect for a cold winter's day, or as a light dinner in the warmer months!
'An apple a day keeps the doctor away' is an old saying we've all heard before, but research now suggests two a day may be a better motto to live by.
When it comes to the heart, apples may be beneficial as they are rich in bioactive polyphenols which have an antioxidant effect. Plus, a specific polyphenol called epicatechin may help to reduce blood pressure.
In addition, apples are rich in fibre which, evidence suggests, may reduce CVD risk factors such as high cholesterol levels. However, one particular study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that two apples a day had to be consumed in order to have this effect.8
3 ways to eat apples
- Slice up some apples and dip them in a healthy nut butter – almond butter is a better option than peanut butter.
- Add some apple to your breakfast cereal, muesli or porridge. They can be even tastier when sliced, sprinkled with cinnamon and then roasted for 10 minutes.
- Put apple in a salad – you could add some nuts and seeds to make it even more nutritious!
Whilst dietary and lifestyle measures can go some way towards supporting the general health of the heart, anyone who has a serious heart condition, or is concerned about the health of their heart, should seek medical advice immediately.