February is heart month so here are five heart-healthy foods that might be underrated in terms of health benefit. Add these food staples to your next shopping list and get cooking!
I don’t use these lists as an opportunity to recommend obscure, expensive and hard-to-find items. Instead I feature tried and true, budget-friendly basics that can be found at almost any grocery store. In my opinion, this is where you can have the most impact; with the stuff that you throw in your cart week-to-week and the habits that you build over time.
Here is my list of five foods to eat more for the benefit of your heart and your tastebuds. I’ve also included recipes for each of them!
Did you know that potatoes are high in potassium? Like more than double what you’ll find in a banana (bananas get all of the potassium love). Potassium is an important mineral for heart health as it can decrease blood pressure in those with hypertension. Studies also suggest that higher potassium intake is associated with a lower risk of stroke.
It’s time to stop banning white potatoes from your diet because you “heard they were bad”. While they do have a relatively high glycemic index, pairing them with protein and fats will slow down the digestion and absorption process. As long as you keep the portion size reasonable and moderate your consumption of the fried version, potatoes are your friend.
If that isn’t convincing enough, potatoes are also high in both fiber (which has well-established heart health benefits) and vitamin C!
Recipes featuring white potatoes:
- Green Goddess Potato Salad (via The Bojon Gourmet)
- Garlic Parmesan Roasted Potatoes (via Damn Delicious)
- Spring Vegetable Soup (via MyRecipes)
Fish is a nutritional rockstar and the fatty varieties like salmon and trout have even more heart health benefits. This is because of the bonus of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
These are all considered “essential” because the body doesn’t synthesize them. ALA is the plant source (think flax seed, chia, walnuts, soy) while DHA and EPA are found in fish and seafood. The body can technically convert ALA to DHA and EPA, but not efficiently. This is why there is so much research around the importance of consuming fish (or an appropriate supplement, if necessary).
Interestingly, the research shows that fish seems to have some sort of total nutrient package that has positive outcomes on heart health. These are benefits that omega-3 supplements can’t seem to replicate.
Recipes featuring fatty fish:
- Salmon Kabobs with Tzatziki Sauce (Leanne Ray)
- Spaghetti with Tomato and Walnut Pesto (via Bon Appetit)
- Lemon Caper Tuna Salad (via We Olive)
- Meal Prep Salmon Salad (Leanne Ray)
Berries in general show benefit on heart health but blueberries are the standout because of their anthocyanin content, a type of flavonoid that has anti-inflammatory effects and protects against oxidative stress.
I also love how versatile blueberries are. Besides eating straight up when they’re in season, I always keep a bag of the frozen blueberries on hand for adding to smoothies and oatmeal bowls.
Recipes featuring blueberries:
- Peach, Blueberry, Arugula Salad (Two Peas and Their Pod)
- Wild Blueberry Banana Spinach Power Smoothie (via Ambitious Kitchen)
- Blueberry Farro Salad with Creamy Fresh Herb Dressing (via Leanne Ray)
Pumpkin Seeds (Pepitas)
Almonds usually get all of the love in this category and while there is plenty of research to support that, why not mix things up and try out pumpkin seeds?
Eating a variety of seeds throughout the week provides a healthy dose of protein, mono- and polyunsaturated fats, fiber and several important minerals like calcium and potassium. Of all nuts and seeds, pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds) are the highest in magnesium. Magnesium gets a lot of attention in cardiovascular disease research for its role in blood sugar regulation and maintaining the heart’s electrical rhythm.
Recipes featuring pepitas:
- Favorite Green Salad with Apples, Cranberries and Pepitas (via Cookie + Kate)
- Butternut Squash, Kale, and Crunchy Pepitas Tacos (via Epicurious)
- Quinoa Mango Black Bean Salad with Smoky Pepitas and Chipotle Lime Vinaigrette (via Vanilla and Bean)
Clearly I saved the best for last! I couldn’t find any hard and fast labeling guidelines, but from what I found dark chocolate tends to refer to chocolate that is at least 65% cocoa. This article was also helpful in differentiating between various types of chocolate including white, milk, bittersweet, semisweet and dark. Did you know white chocolate isn’t actually chocolate at all?
In regards to the benefits, there is evidence to suggest that moderate amounts of dark chocolate (translation: more isn’t better) leads to improved vascular function, reduced blood pressure, and improved insulin sensitivity. This is all related to the flavonoid content of the cocoa beans. An appropriate amount is about an ounce or so. If you like something sweet after meals, why not try a square of dark chocolate so you can reap some nutritional benefits too?
Recipes featuring dark chocolate:
- Energy Boosting Trail Mix with Toasted Coconut and Dark Chocolate (via Kristine’s Kitchen)
- Chunky Monkey Zucchini Banana Muffins (via Ambitious Kitchen)
- Salted Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Bark (via Lively Table)
- Espresso Banana Bread with Dark Chocolate (Leanne Ray)
Effect of increased potassium intake on cardiovascular risk factors and disease: systematic review and meta-analyses. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4816263/
Anthocyanins in cardiovascular disease. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3042791/
Consumption of plant seeds and cardiovascular health: epidemiological and clinical trial evidence. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3745769/
Magnesium helps the heart keep it’s mettle. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/magnesium-helps-the-heart-keep-its-mettle
Daily consumption of chocolate rich in flavonoids decreases cellular genotoxicity and improves biochemical parameters of lipid and glucose metabolism. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6225491/
This post was originally published in February 2019 and updated in February 2020.
Want more nutrition tips & recipes?
Subscribe to my bi-weekly emails. I'll recap what's new on the blog, plus share exclusive healthy living tips and resources!