Surprise! A bean burrito and a cup of hot cocoa are just a few of the options that will help slash your blood pressure, cholesterol, and homocysteine levels. Here, eight foods you can't afford to skip.

By Brooke Benjamin

Superfoods for Your Heart

While it would be nice to live on chocolate for the entire month of February, be sweet to your heart and aim for a more balanced diet. "If you eat lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins, you can greatly reduce your heart-disease risk," says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Connecticut.

You probably already know that walnuts, salmon, and oatmeal help keep your ticker beating strong. So we've done some digging and found eight additional foods that also get the seal of approval from the experts. Go ahead and set that box of chocolates aside, and try one of the following heart-healthy options now.

Surprise Superfood: Oranges

This citrus supplies over 4 grams of fiber and 55 mcg of folate (nearly 15% of the recommended daily intake) per fruit.

Folate breaks down homocysteine, an amino acid in your blood that can damage the lining of the arteries and promote blood clots. A Journal of the American Heart Association study found that people who consumed at least 300 mcg of folate daily had a 20% lower risk of stroke and a 13% lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who got less than 136 mcg daily.

Hearty Ideas

  • Make a stir-fry with lean ground beef, orange segments, and snow peas; serve with brown rice.
  • Build a colorful salad with spinach, orange slices, avocado, and smoked salmon.
  • Try a sweet take on potato salad: Toss roasted sweet potato with a cut-up orange and olive oil.

Surprise Superfood: Avocado

This fruit, a staple of the Mediterranean diet, has proven heart-health benefits. "It has monounsaturated fats and also a decent amount of soluble fiber—half an avocado supplies about 7 grams of fiber," says Joy Bauer, R.D., author of Food Cures: Treat Common Health Concerns, Look Younger & Live Longer (Rodale Press). It's especially valuable for the type of monounsaturated fat it contains: cholesterol-lowering oleic acid, the same one found in olive oil. Avocados also have potassium, a mineral that helps blunt the spike in blood pressure that sodium triggers.

Hearty Ideas

  • Mash an avocado into guacamole.
  • Top black bean soup with a few avocado slices.
  • Make a Southwest turkey burger with avocado and salsa.

Surprise Superfood: Trout

Unless you're a fish aficionado, you may not have tried trout. But this oily fish has sweet, flaky flesh that is chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids. "These healthy fats reduce levels of triglycerides, a fat your body produces that is associated with heart-disease risk," explains Bauer. "Omega-3s may also increase high-density lipoprotein [HDL, or 'good' cholesterol]." Salmon gets all the buzz for being the omega-3 superstar, with 0.7-1.8 grams per 3-ounce serving (roughly the size of a deck of cards), but trout is close behind with 0.8-1.0 gram per serving. Bottom line? You'll reel in heart benefits.

Hearty Ideas

  • Instead of a chicken or salmon Caesar salad, top greens with grilled trout.
  • Broil trout with lemon and thyme and serve with whole-grain couscous.
  • Make blackened trout tacos with mango, avocado, and salsa.

Surprise Superfood: Cereal

We're not talking about those sugary cereals your kids love; instead look for one with at least 4 grams of fiber per serving, such as Kellogg's Smart Start Healthy Heart, General Mills' Wheat Chex, or Kashi Heart to Heart Oat Flakes & Wild Blueberry Clusters. Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that people who ate whole-grain cereal two to six times per week had a 22% lower instance of heart failure than those who didn't eat any. "Fiber stabilizes blood glucose and insulin levels, so it guards against insulin resistance—one of the major drivers of heart disease," says Dr. Katz. Think of insulin as a doorman who ushers glucose out of blood and into cells so your body can use it as sugar. When your body is resistant to insulin, the door gets stuck, so you produce even more insulin to try to force it open. This increases inflammation in the arteries and contributes to hardening that leads to stroke and heart attack.

Hearty Ideas

  • Make trail mix with whole-grain cereal, cranberries, and dark chocolate.
  • Build a parfait with low-fat yogurt, whole-grain cereal, and berries.
  • Slice a banana the long way and top with peanut butter and crushed whole-grain cereal for breakfast.

Surprise Superfood: Cocoa Powder

You've heard that green tea is heart healthy, but did you know that a mug of hot cocoa may be better? A review that compared the effects of tea and chocolate found that the sweet stuff lowered systolic blood pressure (the top number) by 5 points and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by 3 points, while tea had no effect. Chocolate bars, unfortunately, don't offer the same benefit. Why? Processing seems to decrease antioxidant content.

"Some powdered cocoas are minimally sweetened, so the cardiovascular benefits are concentrated into fewer calories," says Dr. Katz. "Look for a 60% cocoa content or higher."

Hearty Ideas

  • Sip on a mug of hot cocoa (cocoa powder plus nonfat milk) instead of having an after-dinner dessert.
  • Stir a spoonful of cocoa powder into your morning coffee.
  • Make a Mexican hot cocoa by adding a pinch of chili powder to your cup of hot chocolate.

Surprise Superfood: Canola Oil

It's widely known that olive oil is good for your heart, but it doesn't taste quite right in blueberry muffins. Canola is a great runner-up that works for baking. "It's high in both poly- and monounsaturated fats and is a reasonably good source of omega-3s," says Dr. Katz. So give yourself an oil change. In one study researchers found that when people used canola oil instead of corn, cottonseed, and soybean oils (and canola spread instead of margarine or butter), they decreased their intake of artery-clogging saturated fat by up to 10% and increased their intake of monounsaturated fat by nearly 30%.

Hearty Ideas

  • Pop popcorn with canola oil.
  • Combine canola oil with lemon juice, garlic, salt, and pepper for salad dressing.
  • Use canola spray instead of shortening to grease pans.

Surprise Superfood: Black Beans

Beans are hard to beat. "They have blood pressure-regulating magnesium, plus soluble fiber, which attaches to cholesterol and whisks it out of the body," explains Bauer. One study of more than 9,500 people found that those who ate legumes at least four times per week had a 22% lower risk of heart disease than those who ate them less than once a week. Black beans also pack serious antioxidant power: A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that they have the highest antioxidant capacity of 12 legumes tested.

Hearty Ideas

  • Top a baked potato with black beans and nonfat sour cream.
  • Trade the usual refried beans in tacos for black beans.
  • Try this dip: Layer black beans, avocado slices, and diced tomatoes and onions; dig in with baked tortilla chips.

Surprise Superfood: Almonds

You can't spell "nutrients" without "nut," and almonds provide plenty of vitamins and minerals that aid your heart. They're packed with arginine, an amino acid that your body uses to produce nitric oxide (a chemical necessary to keep blood vessels flexible), as well as magnesium and calcium, which help manage and maintain normal blood pressure. Almonds are also one of the best dietary sources of vitamin E, an antioxidant that keeps your arteries clean by preventing LDL—"bad" cholesterol—from oxidizing and causing blockages. Still not convinced? In a recent study published in Circulation, men and women who ate about 3 ounces of almonds (two handfuls) daily reduced their LDL by more than 9%.

Hearty Ideas

  • Mix almond slivers into brown rice along with some dried cranberries.
  • Fill a whole wheat pita with almond butter and sliced banana.
  • Stir some sliced almonds into tuna or chicken salad.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the February 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.