Keen to lower your chances of developing cardiovascular disease? Maintaining a healthy BMI, taking regular exercise and stopping smoking are proven ways to reduce your risk, but what you eat is also key.
Related: Read our guide to cardiovascular disease
“A healthy diet is so important to prevent the risk of developing heart disease,” says registered dietitian Emer Delaney. “This is because it can help reduce raised cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure: two key components of heart health.”
Related: How to lower your cholesterol
Related: 10 ways to lower your blood pressure
The latest research suggests the Mediterranean diet is the most heart-friendly: think lots of fruit, veg and wholegrains, some oily fish and limited refined carbs, sugar, salt and saturated fats. But while aiming for a varied, well-balanced diet is the way forward, some foods are particularly beneficial for your ticker. We've rounded up 10 of the best.
Related: The healthiest Mediterranean foods
Oats are packed with beta-glucans, a type of soluble fibre that absorbs artery-blocking LDL aka bad cholesterol, promoting cardiovascular health and lowering the risk of heart attack. And if that's not enough to get you reaching for the porridge, a study published in 2014 found that a polyphenol antioxidant called avenanthramide (AVE) – found only in oats – may also have potent heart-protective properties.
Related: How to make the perfect porridge
Recipe: Sugar-free oatmeal raisin cookies
Bursting with heart-friendly nutrients, avocados are definitely worth adding to your shopping list if you're eager to keep that ticker healthy.
The delicious salad favourite is a rich source of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that reduces cholesterol, as well as a plant sterol called beta-sitosterol, which also keeps cholesterol levels in check.
Avocados are high in potassium too, which can help lower blood pressure and regulate the heart's rhythm.
Recipe: Avocado on toast
Recipe: Avocado and black bean salad
In addition to warding off vampires, garlic is renowned for its health-boosting properties. Although it doesn't lower LDL cholesterol as was previously thought, studies suggest garlic may delay hardening of the arteries and help prevent heart disease.
Thanks to its high antioxidant content, regular consumption of garlic has been found to lower blood pressure by up to 8%. If you're not into the taste or smell of fresh garlic, think about taking an odourless supplement.
Related: Learn more about the health benefits of garlic
Recipe: Creamy garlic mushrooms on toast
4. Dark chocolate
Study after study has shown that dark chocolate – the proper stuff with a minimum of 70% cocoa solids – can help support cardiovascular health and lower the risk of heart disease.
Cocoa is an excellent source of heart-protective micronutrients called polyphenols. Opt for low sugar bars if you can and enjoy your chocolate in moderation – a couple of small squares a few times a week is more than enough.
Related: Discover the health benefits of chocolate
Recipes: Visit our chocolate hub for delicious recipes
The British Heart Foundation recommends eating salmon or other oily fish like mackerel or sardines at least once a week for optimum cardiovascular health.
Brimming with beneficial nutrients, oily fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce fatty triglycerides in the blood, regulate the heart beat, lower blood pressure and help keep the arteries plaque-free.
Vegetarian? Flaxseeds, leafy greens and nuts are decent plant-based sources of omega-3 but if you're over 60, you might want to ask your doctor about taking a supplement.
Related: Where to get omega 3 if you don’t like salmon
Recipes: Visit our salmon recipe hub for ideas and inspiration
Considered the number one nut for heart health, the humble walnut is a compact powerhouse of nutrition. For starters, walnut are a good source of heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids.
They're high in soluble fibre and plant sterols, which help lower cholesterol, and they also contain l-arginine and vitamin E, which are thought to support the health of the arteries. You can't go wrong.
Related: 10 healthy reasons to eat more nuts
Recipe: Chicory, walnut and parsley salad
7. Rapeseed oil
Olive oil is a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet and its heart-friendly properties are well-documented, but rapeseed oil may just have the edge.
Like olive oil, it is jam-packed with beneficial monounsaturated fat that helps reduce total cholesterol, but rapeseed is higher in health-enhancing omega-3 fatty acids and lower in saturated fat. And unlike olive oil, rapeseed doesn't degrade at high temperatures, so it makes for a healthier cooking oil.
Related: The healthiest Mediterranean foods
Related: The health benefits of different edible oils
You may think this trendy green is overrated, but kale certainly lives up to the hype: the heart-healthy veggie hasn't been dubbed a superfood for nothing. High in soluble fibre to lower cholesterol and rich in carotenoid phytochemicals that help prevent blocked arteries, kale is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. If kale isn't available, spinach, cabbage and broccoli are excellent alternatives.
Related: How to cook kale
Recipe: Asian chopped omelette with kale and peppers
Blueberries, as well as other superfood berries such as strawberries and blackcurrants have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease. Berries are high in anthocyanins – the pigments that give them their vivid blue or red colour – which may help reduce blood pressure and dilate the arteries. Blueberries also contain an antioxidant called pterostilbene, which helps process excess LDL cholesterol in the body.
Related: The top 20 things to eat
Recipe: Blueberry and oat pancakes
High in heart-healthy potassium, tomatoes are also one of the best dietary sources of lycopene.
A carotenoid phytochemical, lycopene helps prevent cholesterol from oxidising and attaching to the arteries, lowering the risk of heart disease.
It's worth bearing in mind that studies indicate lycopene is better absorbed by the body when tomatoes are eaten raw with heart-friendly monounsaturated oils, or gently cooked through.
Related: Understanding antioxidants
Recipes: Visit our tomato recipe hub for delicious ideas