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Strawberries, Grapefruit, Red Bell Peppers, Mixed Salad Greens, Kale, Spinach, Broccoli
All fruits and vegetables are natural disease fighters, thanks to their potent mix of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. According to research from the Harvard School of Public Health, women who ate at least eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day had a 20% lower risk of coronary heart disease than those who ate only three. And an even greater reduction in risk was found in women who ate eight or more servings of leafy greens; cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower; and vitamin C-rich produce, such as oranges and grapefruits, in particular.
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Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which may prevent arrhythmias (irregular heart rates) and lower triglycerides. A recent study found that women who ate the most omega-3s had the lowest risk of dying of heart disease. The AHA recommends eating fish twice a week, preferably fatty fish.
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Asparagus, Orange Juice
Asparagus and orange juice are packed with folate. This B vitamin can help lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that in large amounts raises your chances of a heart attack or stroke. In studies, people with more folate in their diet had lower rates of coronary heart disease.
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Plant Sterol/Stanol Margarine
Plant sterols and stanols are natural compounds that block LDL (bad) cholesterol from being absorbed. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, 2 grams of plant sterols and stanols a day (about 2 tablespoons of most sterol/stanol margarines—check the label) can slash LDL cholesterol by as much as 15%.
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Potatoes are rich in vitamin C and fiber—both can protect the heart. When they are cooked and then cooled (as in potato salad) they contain high amounts of a special fiber called resistant starch, which increases fullness and can help lower heart disease risk by keeping blood sugar and insulin levels stable. Nab more nutrients by leaving the skins on—and mix low-fat mayo and low-fat yogurt for a healthier, calcium-rich dressing.
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Avocados are loaded with monounsaturated fats, which can reduce your heart disease risk when used instead of saturated fats. So skip the cheese or sour cream dips, mash an avocado with garlic, lemon juice and spices, and serve with baked chips.
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A half-cup of salsa provides a whole serving of vegetables, whether it's a topping for baked chips, burritos, or southwestern-style chicken breasts. Tomatoes are rich in heart-healthy vitamin C and the plant chemical lycopene, and salsa add-ins like garlic, onion and cilantro are full of phytochemicals too.
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Flavoring your foods with fresh herbs allows you to use less salt and butter. Plus, research has found that basil may make platelets less sticky, which can cut the risk of blood clots.
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Pomegranates are high in antioxidants like tannins and polyphenols, and studies have found that daily consumption of the juice may help reduce plaque buildup in the carotid arteries as well as improve heart function in people with coronary heart disease.
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Nonfat and Low-Fat Milk, Yogurt and Pudding
Low-fat dairy products have been shown to help reduce blood pressure, which can safeguard your heart. Fortified dairy products like milk and yogurt also help you meet your daily need of 400mg of vitamin D. The Framingham Heart Study revealed that D deficiency is associated with a higher incidence of heart disease, especially for those who have high blood pressure. Make your own pudding with nonfat milk and keep low-fat yogurt and cheese on hand for snacks.
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Olive and Canola Oil
Both of these oils are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats and low in artery-clogging saturated fats. In a recent study, women who ate salads dressed in vinegar and oil five or more times a week had a lower risk of fatal coronary heart disease.
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Three tablespoons of wheat germ sprinkled on yogurt or cereal delivers your entire daily requirement of vitamin E, an antioxidant that research suggests may help prevent blood clots and thickening of the arteries.
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Chocolate is rich in flavonoids, compounds from the cocoa bean plant (and also found in citrus fruit and red wine) that may help prevent blood clots and hardening of the arteries. Dark chocolate has higher levels of flavonoids because it packs more cocoa (and less sugar). Pick a bar with at least 70% cacao. Since chocolate is high in calories, limit yourself to 1 ounce a day.
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Whole Wheat Pasta, Bread and Cereal
A higher intake of whole grains has been linked to lower rates of coronary heart disease. Whole grains deliver a hefty dose of fiber, which can help lower cholesterol levels. Plus, they also contain much higher levels of phytochemicals and nutrients, like vitamin E and magnesium, than refined grains.
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Canned (or Pouch) Salmon and Light Waterpacked Tuna
For an easy, lower-cost way to get your beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, stuff tuna or salmon into a pita, or pile it on a green salad. Choose light tuna over albacore, since it contains less mercury. And stick to just two servings a week.
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Oats have a higher proportion of soluble fiber than any other grain. This kind of fiber lowers your cholesterol level by binding to cholesterol in your intestine and preventing it from entering the bloodstream.
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Almonds, walnuts, peanuts and pistachios have all been studied for their heart-health perks, including lower total and LDL cholesterol and less inflammation. According to the FDA, 1.5 ounces (about one small handful) daily is enough to help your heart.
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Flaxseed is high in cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber and alpha-linoleic acids, a type of omega-3 fatty acid that can protect your heart. Buy ground flaxseed or grind whole flaxseed in a coffee bean grinder, then sprinkle 1 tablespoon a day onto your oatmeal, or into muffin or pancake batter, or blend with mustard or low-fat mayo for a sandwich spread.
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Dried Beans and Lentils, Canned Beans
Legumes like beans, peas and lentils are high in soluble fiber, which can help lower total and LDL cholesterol. In one recent study, people who ate them four times a week had a 22% lower risk of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease than those who ate them less than once a week.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.
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