Eating for Heart Health

With Valentine’s Day being tomorrow, stores are packed with gifts like sugary chocolates and cute cuddly teddy bears. While I’ve never been crazy about the level of commercialism surrounding the holiday, I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about heart health. Here are six foods and drinks that will keep your heart pumping strong for your loved one!


1. Tea

A number of studies have found that drinking a few cups of green or black tea daily reduces risk of heart disease(1). Green and black tea provide antioxidants that fight inflammation, and they have also been found to improve blood cholesterol profiles(1).


2. Seafood Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Seafood is extremely rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which play a key role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Fatty fish such as salmon, trout, herring, anchovies, sardines and tuna are particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Exposure to mercury from seafood is also an important consideration. Since mercury bio-accumulates in the food chain(2), choose fish lower on the food chain to minimize your exposure to mercury (see this handy table to help choose seafood high in omega-3 fatty acids, but low in mercury(3)). Overall, the benefits of eating fish for heart health outweigh the risks(4) of contaminants. As a result, various health organizations including Dieticians of Canada recommend eating fish twice a week(5).


3. Dark Chocolate

Who doesn’t love chocolate for Valentine’s Day? Choose dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa, which contains antioxidants called flavonoids. Flavonoids help protect bad LDL cholesterol from being oxidized(6), which causes plaque to build up in the arteries. They also lower blood pressure, increase blood flow to the heart and reduce formation of blood clots(6). However, chocolate bars contain added sugar, so don’t go overboard. Try to choose chocolates having a relatively lower sugar content (make sure sugar isn’t the first ingredient) and stick to eating it in moderation.


4. Nuts

Nuts are rich sources of antioxidants, fiber, magnesium and folic acid. Eating nuts regularly reduces “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides(7), which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.


5. Leafy Green Vegetables

Don’t skimp out of eating leafy greens – they are packed full of antioxidants and are also key sources of nitrate in the diet. Nitrates are important because they are converted into nitric oxide in the human body, which benefits the cardiovascular system in a number of ways(8) including reduced blood pressure and preventing blood clots from forming.


6. Wine (In Moderation)*

Light to moderate alcohol consumption, of 0.5-1 drink daily for women, and 1-2 drinks daily for men, is linked to reduced risk of heart disease(9). However, the dose determines the benefit, as the relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease has a J shaped curve. While moderate alcohol intake reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, higher alcohol intakes are actually linked to a proportional increases in risk of cardiovascular disease. So targeting that sweet spot of moderate alcohol consumption is the key to maximizing its health benefits.


* Unless you’re pregnant, have a history of substance abuse, or have a medical condition where your doctor does not recommend consuming alcohol


1. Tea’s Good for the Heart — Studies Show a Few Cups a Day Keep Heart Disease at Bay.

2. Environment and Health – Mercury in the Food Chain – Pollution and Waste – Environment Canada.

3. Mozaffarian D & Rimm EB. Fish intake, contaminants, and human health: Evaluating the risks and the benefits. JAMA 296, 1885–1899 (2006).

4. Fish: Friend or Foe? | The Nutrition Source | Harvard School of Public Health.

5. Kris-Etherton, P. M., Innis, S., American Dietetic Association, & Dietitians of Canada. Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: dietary fatty acids. J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 107, 1599–1611 (2007).

6. Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate Unveiled.

7. Sabaté J, Oda K & Ros E. Nut consumption and blood lipid levels: A pooled analysis of 25 intervention trials. Arch. Intern. Med. 170, 821–827 (2010).

8. Lundberg, J. O., Carlström, M., Larsen, F. J. & Weitzberg, E. Roles of dietary inorganic nitrate in cardiovascular health and disease. Cardiovasc. Res. 89, 525–532 (2011).

9. O’Keefe, J. H., Gheewala, N. M. & O’Keefe, J. O. Dietary Strategies for Improving Post-Prandial Glucose, Lipids, Inflammation, and Cardiovascular Health. J. Am. Coll. Cardiol. 51, 249–255 (2008).