It’s amazing how lifestyle changes like working out and eating well can have positive benefits for the body and its health. And, as researchers are finding out, key foods have very specific impacts on cardiovascular health, such as lowering blood pressure and improving hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure). Why is that a good thing? High blood pressure can signal cardio issues, which could eventually lead to heart disease, stroke or even heart attack. While your doctor can put you on medication to improve these risk factors, you can also help by exercising regularly (under the approval of your doctor, of course) and eating well. But up your heart health game with these science-approved foods.
1. Leafy greens
Salads may seem like an obvious healthy choice for lunch, and it's the greens that get most of the credit. According to research from the University of Exeter the United Kingdom, the dietary nitrate content of foliage has an effect on blood pressure. Female subjects were given either a high-nitrate or nitrate-void diet, and just after one week the first group reported increased plasma nitrate and significantly reduced resting systolic blood pressure. The no-nitrate control group reported no significant changes in blood pressure.
Eggs used to get a bad rap for heart health because of their nutritional blood cholesterol content. But not anymore! Scientists are finding that the amino acids, specifically cysteine, can be heart-friendly. A study from the Institute of Environmental Medicine in Stockholm, Sweden, tested whether cysteine had any positive antihypertensive effects. The research team reviewed data of more than 34,000 women and their diet and compared that with hospital and death statistics to appropriate risk. They found that dietary cysteine intake (an average of 645 milligrams per day) was inversely associated with stroke risk, and the lowest levels of cysteine in the diet was not only linked to stroke, but also to blocked blood flow to the brain and cerebral hemorrhaging. Cysteine was the only amino acid that showed any effect.
A bowlful of oats in the morning can be a good first step each day, thanks to their fiber—more specifically, beta-glucan fiber. A six-week study that was published in the Journal of Hypertension compared three diets from 18 trials: fiber isolate, fiber rich and a control group with placebo. While it showed that an increase in overall fiber in the diet has benefits for lowering blood pressure, beta-glucan fiber (found in oats and barely) showed even more improvements in lowering systolic and diastolic blood pressure markers.
For your next fruit salad, include a healthy portion of cantaloupe. This melon contains antioxidants that can help with cardiovascular health. According to a study in Food & Nutrition Research, carotenoids are fat-soluble antioxidants that help oxidize low-density lipoproteins, as well as lower blood pressure and inflammation markers of high blood pressure.
5. Japanese Food
Go for Japanese tonight! According to a three-year study in the European Journal of Nutrition, a Japanese diet had positive effects on blood pressure for men and women. Actually every year men showed lower markers of diastolic blood pressure in men and women, and systolic blood pressure in women. Further research is needed to understand why, say the scientists.
6. Greek Food
A plate full of fish, vegetables, cheese and olive oil isn’t just satisfying; it’s good for your ticker too. The Mediterranean diet is known for its life longevity benefits, and a study in Stroke suggests it could combat stroke. Dietary and health data from more than 30,000 people with a six-year follow-up compared stroke (both ischemic and hemorrhagic), vascular risk factors, blood pressure levels, and antihypertensive medications to adherence of the Mediterranean diet. Despite its fat content, there was no risk for stroke for those following a Mediterranean diet.
Top your morning oats with blueberries suggests a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Diatetics. The researchers chose post-menopausal women for their subjects because of their increasing cardiovascular disease risks, and followed them for eight weeks with a daily dose of blueberries (22 grams) to examine the effects on blood pressure and arterial stiffness. The researchers found that systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure after eight weeks were significantly lower than the baseline levels, and they suggest that it’s the nitric content of blueberries that had this effect. No changes were shown in the control group.
This healthy source of oils can be a tasty addition to smoothies, salads and cereal. And as researchers from the Institute of Nutrition in São Paulo, Brazil, point out, flaxseed can give an added boost to heart health. For 42 days, they tracked two groups of men who followed a diet that either included rice powder or flaxseed powder, and they checked their blood pressure and other blood measures such as lipidic and insulin levels. Interestingly, both groups experienced weight loss and lowered blood pressure as well as improvements in cholesterol levels, but the flaxseed group had an added benefit with a reduction in triglyceride levels and in inflammation.
9. Beans and Legumes
Healthy and lean sources of protein are a good choice for anyone, especially those concerned with heart health. And a recent study in Magnesium Research may show why. The researchers suggest that the magnesium content in beans and legumes affect the heart contractions and vascular tone. In this animal study, they found that magnesium deficiency may be linked high blood pressure, and could contribute to hypertension. More research is needed on humans, but a diet with beans and legumes couldn’t hurt you—only benefit you.
Move over apples; there’s a new super fruit in town. Researchers from Oslo University Hospital in Oslo, Norway tested out whether eating kiwis daily had a beneficial effect for blood pressure. Healthy adults with either normal blood pressure ratings or stage-1 hypertension were put randomly into either an apple-a-day or three-kiwis-a-day diet groups, and their blood pressure levels were recorded. After eight weeks, blood pressure was lower in the kiwifruit group versus the apple group for systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
The Blood Pressure Diet
If you’re looking for a more formal diet to follow, consider the very reputable and doctor-recommend DASH Diet, which was created to lower blood pressure without medication. It’s also sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. The main gist is to increase fruit and vegetable intake, as well as include whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, nuts and vegetable oils, all while limiting sodium, added sugars and red meats. For more information on the changes you can make in lifestyle to lower blood pressure, check out the Dash Diet.