healthy-dietAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), diseases of the heart remain the No. 1 cause of mortality in the United States, claming nearly 600,000 people yearly.

When it comes to chipping away at this lofty number, the latest studies show that various eating habits can confer numerous heart-protective benefits. Use these 10 strategies to kick-start your way to a heart-chummy diet.

EMBRACE TEA TIME

Dutch researchers echoed the results of previous studies when they found that people who drink three to six cups of tea per day have a 45% lower risk of dying from heart disease than do people who quaff less than one cup daily. The various types of tea (yes, even black) are chockablock with potent antioxidants called flavonoids that are thought to protect heart health.

“Tea is also a healthier alternative to sugarladen drinks such as soda,” says Ashley Koff, RD, a Los Angeles-based celebrity dietitian. Enjoy a mug with breakfast, lunch, and after dinner. Drinking green tea after a meal may also boost satiety levels, according to a 2010 Nutrition Journal study.


START ROUGHING IT

Based on data from nearly 400,000 subjects, scientists report in the Archives of Internal Medicine that the highest intakes of fiber—30 grams per day for men and 25 grams for women—can slash the risk of dying from cardiovascular and other diseases by up to 60%.

“Fiber helps bolster heart health by improving cholesterol levels and blood pressure as well as body composition,” Koff explains. “It does the latter by filling you up so you’re less apt to overeat.”

But many Americans consume only half the recommended daily fiber intake. Load up by eating plenty of legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables—in other words, plant-based whole foods.

MAKE MONDAYS MEATLESS

Meatless Mondays are good for your heart and the planet, so consider trading in steak for tofu more often.

Researchers at California’s Loma Linda University report that compared with nonvegetarians, vegetarian subjects experience a 36% lower prevalence of metabolic syndrome, a condition that includes high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, and an unhealthy waist circumference, all of which increase the likelihood of heart disease.

Well-planned vegetarian eating ensures you get an abundance of heart-friendly fiber, vitamins, and plant-derived antioxidants.

REEL IN MORE OMEGA-3Shealthy-diet1

When you do put nonplant protein on your dinner plate, make it the catch of the day. A number of studies show that increased consumption of the supercharged omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA present in certain fish protects against heart disease.

Case in point: A 2011 study in the journal Nutrition associates omega-3s with lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Fish with the highest levels include salmon, trout, sardines, sablefish, and mackerel.

AIM FOR EIGHT A DAY

Mom was right: Eat your broccoli to prevent heart disease!

Recent research published in the European Heart Journal shows that people who consume at least eight portions (about 80 grams each) of fruits and vegetables daily have a 22% lower risk of dying from heart disease than do those who consume fewer than three portions.

“The synergy between vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants in fruits and vegetables is likely behind their disease-fighting abilities,” says Koff. Still, CDC surveys indicate that well under half of Americans eat enough fruits and veggies.

WHOLE LOTTA LOVErainbow-trout

With so many choices becoming more widely available (black quinoa, anyone?), there’s never been a better time to cook up heart-healthy whole grains.

A recent American Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigation discovered that people who regularly nosh on fiber- and nutrient-rich whole grains rather than their refined counterparts—in other words, brown rice instead of white—accumulate less visceral adipose tissue, a type of belly fat linked to a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, than do others. The lower glycemic index of whole grains has also been shown to help keep the heart beating strong.

“Whole grains also contain B vitamins, vitamin E, and minerals that are heart healthy,” Koff notes.

Some of the most nutrient-dense grains include quinoa, amaranth, spelt, oats, and buckwheat.

CAN THE CANS

Most metal food and beverage cans have a thin coating on their interior surfaces that contains the sketchy chemical bisphenol A (BPA). A 2010 study reports that American adults with high urinary concentrations of BPA are more likely to develop heart disease and diabetes.

To lower your exposure, choose dried beans, frozen vegetables and fruit, and fresh tomatoes more often than their canned counterparts. Some companies, such as Eden Foods and Wild Planet Foods, are using a BPA-free liner for some of their canned items.

Consuming fewer canned items is also a great way to cut back on sodium intake, which can help keep blood pressure in check.

GET D-FENSE

Vitamin D, which the body obtains chiefly from sun exposure, is a bright light in the fight against heart disease.

Much more than calcium’s wingman, higher blood levels of this vitamin have been shown by researchers at the University of Colorado in Denver to slash the risk of cardiovascular disease. Cells in every tissue, including the heart, have receptors for vitamin D and require adequate amounts to function properly. UV-exposed mushrooms and fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, are among the very few reliable food sources of vitamin D, so consider supplementing with 1,000 IU daily, especially during the winter gloom.

GO NUTS FOR NUTSroasted-sweet-potato

Take this to heart: Gleaning data from 25 nut consumption studies, a recent report in the Archives of Internal Medicine reveals that eating a handful of nuts daily improves blood lipid levels, including LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides, making almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and others champions for heart health.

“Nuts deliver plenty of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which help improve cholesterol levels,” says Koff, adding that “minerals, antioxidants, and fiber in nuts also keep the heart happy.”

JOIN THE DARK SIDE

As if you needed an excuse to eat chocolate, a 2010 study in the European Heart Journal involving nearly 20,000 subjects suggests that those who eat an average of 7.5 grams of dark chocolate daily (really, who can’t do that?) have lower blood pressure and a 39% reduced risk of having a heart attack or stroke compared with those who nibbled on less. Flavonoid antioxidants abundant in dark chocolate stimulate the production of nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels to lower blood pressure.

For the biggest antioxidant wallop, choose bars with at least 60% cocoa and feel good about indulging in an ounce daily.