Surprisingly heart-healthy foods

Many of us began the year with resolutions to take the obvious steps to improve our health: eat more fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep.

However, a month or so into 2017, how many of us are still on track with keeping up with these changes? If you’ve drifted a little, don’t worry: February is National Heart Month and is a great time to renew your efforts to take care of your body this year.

If you are growing tired of all the standard advice and need to shake up your routine, read on for some surprising heart-healthy foods to help restart or reinvigorate your efforts. 

Beans: With the exception of a childhood song, beans don’t get much attention for their relationship to heart health. A good source of fiber and potassium, beans are rich in protein and offer an inexpensive, plant-based alternative to meat. Plus, you don’t need to eat a lot of them to benefit. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition suggests having just 1⁄2 cup of cooked beans daily offers heart-healthy benefits. In addition, a literature review of ten studies where participants added beans to their diets found that this change was associated with a reduction in LDL (bad) cholesterol. Try adding rinsed canned beans to your salad, soups, and stews, or swap beans for meat a few nights a week by serving bean burritos, a bean chili, or a bean and rice dish.

Kimchi: Fermented foods are getting a lot of attention lately in the United States, but many of these foods are long-standing staples in other cultures. Kimchi is one such food–made from fermented vegetables, it is an essential side dish in Korean cuisine. A recent study of 100 participants found that people consuming larger amounts of kimchi lead to greater reductions in LDL (bad) cholesterol levels after only seven days. Check out a local Korean restaurant to give kimchi a try, or pick up a jar at your local Asian market.

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100 percent Grape Juice: Most of us have heard about the heart-healthy benefits of wine, but what about its non-fermented friend grape juice? Nearly 20 years of research suggests that, thanks to the deep-purple Concord grape, 100 percent grape juice can support a healthy heart. Concord grapes and its juice provide a unique mix of polyphenols, specifically flavonoids, which are associated with heart-health benefits like improved blood flow (or improved circulation). Just four ounces, or 1/2 cup, counts as one serving of fruit and should be a complement to, not a replacement for, a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables to get a diverse intake of polyphenols throughout the day.

Eggs: Eggs have been the cornerstone of a healthy meal for generations, and for good reason. Eggs are an-all natural source of high-quality protein with one large egg containing six grams protein (12 percent daily value), 13 vitamins and minerals, all for seventy caloriesHowever, for many it’s hard to tune out the decades of hearing that eggs, which contain dietary cholesterol, are not great for your heart. But recent research has changed that advice.

For example, one study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition suggests that eating one egg a day reduces risk for stroke by 12 percent. In addition, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans make no recommendations to limit the cholesterol we eat. Top your salad with a hardboiled egg or include a side of fresh fruit with your veggie omelet for a heart-healthy, nutrition powerhouse meal.

Papaya: The effects of lycopene (a healthy plant-based compound) on heart disease are well studied, and tomatoes tend to get all the attention as a good source of lycopene in the diet. While tomatoes do contain this powerful antioxidant that is responsible for its red shade, so do many other fruits and vegetables that come in crimson colors. One study that looked at the bioavailability of lycopene in tomatoes, carrots, and papaya found that the lycopene from papaya was 2.6 times more bioavailable than that from tomatoes. While more research is needed to investigate how upping your intake of papaya might benefit your heart, give this tropical fruit a chance by adding it to your snack rotation, smoothies, salads, and parfaits.

Dark Chocolate: As if you needed a reason to include chocolate in your diet, here’s some delicious news. A 2015 study that looked at participants with Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure compared the addition of dark chocolate (from 83 percent cocoa chocolate bars) to white chocolate bars in their diets showed that people who ate dark chocolate saw a reduction in their blood pressure compared to the people who ate white chocolate.

The authors attribute this difference to the high polyphenol content of the dark chocolate. Since chocolate is high in calories and added sugar, most experts agree that the recommended “dose” of dark chocolate is approximately one to two ounces a day.

Disclosure: Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN works with the American Egg Board to help people make healthy food choices.

Patricia Bannan is a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian specializing in nutrition and health communications.  She is the author of “Eat Right When Time Is Tight: 150 Slim-Down Strategies and No-Cook Food Fixes.” Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.

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