You probably know by now what not to eat when it comes to maintaining a healthy heart. But what about the things that can help keep your ticker strong? Cambridge, Massachusetts-based researcher William Li, MD, has spent more than 30 years studying angiogenesis — the process of how the body makes blood vessels grow and keeps them healthy.
“That’s basically the beating heart of the cardiovascular system,” explains Dr. Li out. After all, our bodies have over 100,000 miles of vessels that pump oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, including to and from the heart. “What we eat is vital to the function of these vessels and to the heart itself,” says Dr. Li, whose book Eat to beat disease is based on the latest research in this area.
Here are some of the latest findings, including Dr. Li for the best foods to reduce your risk of heart disease.
Foods that improve circulation
“It’s crucial to eat foods that can stimulate or help maintain proper blood vessel growth for the heart and the rest of the body,” says Dr. Li. Angiogenesis not only keeps blood circulating throughout the body, but also comes into play when the circulation is threatened, such as a blockage in a blood vessel in atherosclerosis or a narrowing of the coronary or carotid arteries. In fact, writes Dr. Li, people can live for years or even decades with coronary artery disease or carotid artery disease if the angiogenesis defense system does its job. These foods can help stimulate blood vessel growth and improve blood flow throughout the body.
Example rate: Apples (including the skin), capers, sesame seeds, cranberries
Foods that activate stem cells
“We know through research that people regenerate from the inside out using our own body’s stem cells,” says Dr. Li. These cells have a wide variety of functions, including helping to protect and repair the heart after injury such as a heart attack. They also help protect blood vessels throughout the body, including those lining the heart. Research has shown that subjects with the highest levels of stem cell factor (a blood marker essential for healthy stem cell functions) had a 50 percent lower risk of heart failure and a 34 percent lower risk of stroke — as well as a 32 percent lower risk of death from any cause whatsoever – over a period of 19 years.
Example rate: Green tea, red wine, dark chocolate, mangoes
Foods that reduce inflammation
Inflammation plays an important role in helping our immune system do its job, such as attacking unwanted invaders such as bacteria or viruses. But chronic inflammation is problematic for a number of health conditions, including your heart. Inflammation plays a critical role in the development of atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque in the arteries). “Almost all of us have some plaque in the arteries,” Dr. Li says. “If these rupture and break off, they can form a clot that can block blood flow, causing a heart attack or stroke.” Anti-inflammatory foods can help reduce the chronic inflammation that can trigger this immune response.
Example rate: Dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, green tea, garlic
Foods that improve the microbiome
Your heart and gut have a surprisingly close relationship. “We have about 39 trillion bacteria that form their own ecosystem in the gut, known as the microbiome,” explains Dr. Li out. “These bacteria help reduce inflammation, reduce the amount of lipids in the body and control blood pressure.” Eating foods that nourish your microbiome can also help your cardiovascular system.
Example rate: Prebiotics (which feed the bacteria that live in the gut) including lentils, walnuts and mushrooms; Probiotic foods (rich in bacteria), including yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and cheeses such as Gouda and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Want to lower your risk of heart disease and make your stomach happy at the same time? These foods (and drinks) can play an especially important role in keeping you healthy.
As if we needed another reason to love chocolate, it turns out it’s good for your heart, thanks to its rich source of natural polyphenols, which help protect blood vessels and boost overall heart function. It also helps stimulate stem cell production – a University of California San Francisco study of subjects with heart disease found that those who had hot chocolate twice a day made with extra-strength dark chocolate had double the number of stem cells in their bloodstream had, since and improved blood flow, after 30 days. Dark chocolate also has a positive effect on intestinal flora, says Dr. Li.
Regularly featured on lists of the world’s healthiest foods, it helps reduce chronic inflammation, stimulates the growth of new blood vessels, nourishes the microbiome and supports stem cell growth. Green tea is particularly rich in the polyphenol EGCG, which reduces harmful angiogenesis, lowers blood pressure, improves blood lipids and has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Believe it or not, brewski has its own health benefits, thanks to bioactive compounds floating in beer during the fermentation process. One, xanthohumol, is a polyphenol that may help reduce the risk of heart disease, says Dr. Li. “Drinking a moderate amount of beer — one glass or bottle a day — can lead to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease,” he notes. The emphasis here, of course, is moderation — too much alcohol is detrimental to your overall health, and those liquid calories can add up.
Your morning eye opener contains a host of natural chemicals, including chlorogenic acid, which helps keep blood vessels dilated and protects the heart, Dr. Li says. “It can also help prevent damaging blood vessels from growing into dental plaque, which feeds the growth, which can cause it to rupture.” Studies have shown that people who drink two to three cups of coffee daily may have a lower risk of heart disease.
Dark chicken meat contains high levels of vitamin K2, or menaquinone, a naturally occurring fat-soluble vitamin. Research has shown that people who eat more foods rich in K2 have more than a 57 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 52 percent lower risk of severe hardening of the arteries due to plaque, says Dr. Li.
A version of this article appeared in 2019 in our partner magazine, The Complete Guide to Heart Health.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, women’s world.