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At last count, 121.5 million adults in the United States have cardiovascular disease. That’s very nearly half of the population. Eating a heart-healthy diet can make a significant impact on those numbers, though.

People who ate mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes and less red or processed meat and sugar-sweetened beverages had up to 20% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, per a 2020 study. In fact, consistent research backs the benefits of a plant-filled diet when it comes to lowering cholesterol and preventing heart attacks and strokes. Paired with regular exercise, it’s an important change you can make to protect your health.

“Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, preceding cancer and other chronic diseases,” says Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, CDN, Registered Dietitian for the Good Housekeeping Institute. “A heart-healthy diet emphasizes produce, fiber-rich whole grains, fish, nuts, legumes, and lean proteins. It is low in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugar.”

Almost every American could benefit from lowering their sodium intake. According to the American Heart Association, nine out of 10 Americans consume too much, increasing their risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.

Make a change by adding more heart-healthy picks to your grocery list. In addition to fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, and beans, healthy fats like those in fish and olive oil also deserve a spot on your plate. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with including a little dark chocolate in the mix as well.

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1

Fish

Putting more salmon, sardines, tuna, and other fish on your dinner plate can help reduce your blood pressure and cardiovascular risk. Seafood is full of good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids that lower can triglyceride levels in the blood. Even if you choose canned fish, you’ll still get the same benefits.

RELATED: 30+ Easy Salmon Recipes to Make for Dinner Tonight

2

Nuts

Whether you prefer almonds, peanuts, walnuts, or cashews, the polyphenols in these plant powerhouses have an antioxidant effect. They can improve cholesterol and lower your risk of heart disease with their beneficial unsaturated fats, so keep ’em on hand for a smart snack.

3

Leafy Greens

More is more when it comes to vegetables. Kale, spinach, and other lettuce contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can help balance blood pressure. The nitrates and vitamin K inside the leaves, in the particular, help out your arteries and blood vessels. In a study of nearly 30,000 women, those with the highest intake of leafy greens had a significantly lower risk of coronary disease.

5

Olive Oil

Switching from ranch to vinaigrette definitely has its benefits. The heart-healthy benefits of olives and olive oil haven’t gone unnoticed. Out of 7,216 adults enrolled in one study, those who consumed the most olive oil had a 48% lower risk of dying from heart disease.

RELATED: The 9 Best Olive Oils for Any Kitchen

6

Berries

Pile more blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries onto your breakfasts, smoothies, and desserts. Eating antioxidant-rich berries can lower LDL cholesterol, systolic blood pressure, and certain markers of inflammation, one meta-analysis found.

7

Beans

Your pantry honestly can’t have enough beans. Legumes are good for both you and the planet as a plant-based protein source, not to mention one of the cheapest foods you can buy at the store. Beans are linked with reduced blood pressure and inflammation as well as lower triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels. How’s that for a win-win?

8

Avocados

The hype is well-deserved. Avocados contain hefty amounts of potassium, with about 28% of what you need in a day in just one avo. Getting sufficient amounts of this nutrient is linked with up to a 15% lower risk of stroke.

9

Seeds

Flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds: take your pick. The polyunsaturated fats inside them help with cholesterol levels. Snack on a handful of sunflower seeds or try sprinkling some flaxseed on top of soup or salad to get more of these small-but-mighty wonders in your diet.

10

Grapes

Don’t skimp on this part of your cheese plate. The compounds within grapes can help regulate blood pressure, reduce inflammation from oxidative stress, improve blood flow, and protect your vascular system.

11

Quinoa

Like other ancient grains, quinoa makes for a smart swap for white rice and other refined carbs. It’s got protein and fiber, not to mention cholesterol-lowering benefits. Not a fan of the nutty taste? Try out other options like barley, farro, sorghum, amaranth, and buckwheat.

12

Apples

An apple a day might really keep the doctor away. Special compounds within apples called procyanidins possess strong antioxidant activity and may reduce LDL cholesterol. If you’re really looking to make an impact, go for the red ones. Red apples contain more anthocyanin, which can improve risk factors for heart disease, but there’s nothing wrong with grabbing a Granny Smith instead.

14

Tomatoes

The heart-healthy, secret ingredient in your tomato sauce? Lycopene, the natural antioxidant in tomatoes that gives them their red color. This important compound helps control blood pressure, prevent atherosclerosis, and lowers LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.

15

Dark Chocolate

Yes, eating dark chocolate really can help your health. Several studies have linked it with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and less calcified plaque in the arteries. Opt for a bar with at least 75% cocoa and you’ll get the most flavonoids, the special antioxidants thought to be at play.

RELATED: The 10 Best Dark Chocolate Bars You Can Buy Right Now

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