18 superfoods for your heart

To prevent heart attacks, avoid unhealthy food, and eat foods rich in nutrients, fiber, and healthy fats.
Health.com // Health.com

While deaths due to heart disease have dropped in recent years, it's still the No. 1 killer of Americans. The good news is that we now know a ton about how to prevent cardiovascular disease, which includes both strokes and heart attacks.

It's clear that healthy eating and living (like exercising more!) can make a huge difference.

Read on to see what you should be including in your diet to keep your ticker happy for decades to come.

--By Amanda Gardner, Health.com

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Salmon

Salmon and other fatty fish such as sardines and mackerel are the superstars of heart-healthy foods. That's because they contain copious amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, shown in studies to lower the risk of arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) and atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries) and decrease triglycerides. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish and preferably fatty fish at least twice a week. Omega-3 fatty acids are also available as dietary supplements.

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Oatmeal

Oatmeal is high in soluble fiber, which can lower cholesterol. "It acts as a sponge in the digestive tract and soaks up the cholesterol so it is eliminated from the body and not absorbed into the bloodstream," says Lauren Graf, a registered dietician and co-director of the Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Graf recommends avoiding instant oatmeal, which often contains sugar, and heading instead for old-fashioned or even quick-cooking oats. Other whole grains such as bread, pasta and grits are also good for the heart as long as they still contain the entire grain.

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Blueberries

Not just blueberries, but strawberries and other berries as well. According to one recent study, women aged 25 through 42 who ate more than three servings of blueberries and strawberries a week had a 32% lower risk of heart attack compared with those who ate less. The authors of the study attributed the benefit to compounds known as anthocyanins, flavonoids (which are antioxidants) that may decrease blood pressure and dilate blood vessels. Anthocyanins give plants their red and blue colors.

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Dark chocolate

Several studies have now shown that dark chocolate may benefit your heart, including one in 2012 that found that daily chocolate consumption could reduce nonfatal heart attacks and stroke in people at high risk for these problems. The findings applied only to dark chocolate, meaning chocolate made up of at least 60-70% cocoa. Dark chocolate contains flavonoids called polyphenols, which may help blood pressure, clotting, and inflammation. Unfortunately, milk chocolate and most candy bars don't make the grade when it comes to protecting your heart.

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Potatoes

There's no reason to shun potatoes because they're white and look like a "bad" starch. As long as they're not deep fried, potatoes can be good for your heart. They're rich in potassium, which can help lower blood pressure. And they're high in fiber, which can lower the risk for heart disease. "They are definitely not a junk food or refined carbohydrate," says Graf. "They have a lot of health benefits."

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Soy

Soy products, including tofu and soy milk, are a good way to add protein to your diet without unhealthy fats and cholesterol. Soy products contain high levels of polyunsaturated fats (good for your health), fiber, vitamins, and minerals. What's more, soy may reduce blood pressure in people who eat a diet high in refined carbohydrates. And compared with milk or other proteins, soy protein can actually decrease LDL or "bad" cholesterol.

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Citrus fruits

Women who consume high amounts of the flavonoids found in oranges and grapefruits have a 19% lower risk of ischemic stroke (caused by a clot) than women who don't get as much of these compounds, a recent study found. Citrus fruits are also high in vitamin C, which has been linked with a lower risk of heart disease. Beware of citrus juices that contain added sugar. And be aware that grapefruit products may interfere with the action of the cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins.

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Tomatoes

Tomato consumption in the U.S. has been rising and that's a good thing. Like potatoes, tomatoes are high in heart-healthy potassium. Plus, they're a good source of the antioxidant lycopene. Lycopene is a carotenoid that may help get rid of "bad" cholesterol, keep blood vessels open, and lower heart attack risk. And because they're low in calories and low in sugar, they don't detract from an already-healthy diet. "They're excellent for the body in a number of ways," says Graf.

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Nuts

This includes almonds, walnuts, pistachios, peanuts and macadamia nuts, all of which contain good-for-your-heart fiber. They also contain vitamin E, which helps lower bad cholesterol. And some, like walnuts, are high in omega-3 fatty acids. "Some people in the past have avoided nuts because they're higher in fat, but most of the studies show that people who consume nuts daily are leaner than people who don't," says Graf. And leaner people are at a lower risk for heart problems. Look for varieties that don't have a lot of added salt.

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