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The Science of a Heart Healthy Diet

May 01, 2024
A heart shaped bowl full or healthy fruits and vegetables sits on a table next to a doctor's stethoscope.

Exploring the Impact of Diet on Heart Health

When it comes to cardiovascular health, the old adage, “You are what you eat” could not be more apt. In addition to having a negative effect on your waistline, frequently eating lots of foods that are highly processed—especially foods high in sodium, salt, sugar, trans fat, and saturated fats—can put a strain on your heart, raising your blood pressure and cholesterol and putting you at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

For the expert team of cardiovascular specialists at CardioVascular Health Clinic, patient education is paramount for living a long and healthy life. They combine state-of-the-art equipment, minimally invasive treatment and prevention strategies, and a whole-person approach to wellness to deliver personalized care that helps you improve your heart health even after you leave our clinic. That’s why Dr. Marcus Smith, an interventional cardiologist at CardioVascular Health Clinic with more than 20 years of experience, says patients need to understand exactly how their food affects their heart, and why it matters.

4 Ways the Food You Eat Affects Your Heart

“Poor diet is strongly associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality,” says Dr. Smith. “Our bodies and cardiovascular systems are highly complex, and they respond to the things we put in them.” Here’s how.

  1. High-fat, high-cholesterol, and high-calorie foods can contribute to a fatty plaque buildup on the walls of the blood vessels, which narrow the arteries and force the heart to work harder, raising your blood pressure. The increased pressure can damage the artery walls and cause them to rupture.
  2. Too much sodium (salt) causes the body to retain fluid, with the increased volume now also increasing blood pressure.
  3. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) are blood lipids (fats) that contain cholesterol. HDL is “good” and helps remove cholesterol from the body, making it harder for plaque to form in the arteries. LDL is “bad” and can lead to the plaque buildup that causes blood clots, heart attacks, and stroke. Saturated fats and trans fat—common culprits in an unhealthy diet—increase LDL and lower HDL.
  4. The sugar, salt, and fats in unhealthy foods can trigger inflammation caused by the release of molecules called cytokines into the bloodstream, attracting immune cells to artery walls and contributing to plaque buildup.

Dr. Smith has good news, however. 

“There is a lot you can do to lower your risk of heart disease and improve your cardiovascular health just by changing what you eat.”

And the research supports him–a 2019 study found that healthy lifestyle choices like improving your diet can reduce your risk of stroke alone by up to 80%.

Healthy Heart Heroes: How Food Can Help Your Heart

For a lot of foods that can help keep your heart healthy, it’s the smallest components that pack the biggest punch.


Dark chocolate is packed with flavonoids, naturally occurring chemical compounds found in plants that give them their color. As antioxidants, flavonoids boast a wide array of heart health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties that influence gut bacteria to lower blood pressure, improve endothelial function, reduce the incidence of ischemic stroke, and lower lipid oxidation, which plays a role in the onset of cardiovascular disease like atherosclerosis.

Flavonoids play a big role in the heart-healthy diets most recommended by heart experts, including the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets. To get the most out of dark chocolate’s flavonoid offerings without consuming too many calories, 1 to 2 ounces a day is the perfect amount to treat yourself with.

Healthy fats

Avocados are veritable powerhouses for heart health. Packed with healthy fats, fiber, and micronutrients, just half an avocado provides 5% of the daily recommended intake of magnesium, 10% of potassium, and a whopping 15% of folate (Vitamin B9). All of these nutrients have been independently linked to better heart health, but combine them with the various plant-based compounds (called phytochemicals), oleic acid (monounsaturated fat), and fiber found in an avocado, and this little green guy could lower your risk for heart disease by as much as 30%, while eating 2 a week can cut your risk of developing coronary artery disease by 21%.

Avocados are delicious by themselves, but you can also use them in place of foods heavy in saturated fats, such as cheese, butter, or fatty meats.


Not to be outdone, tomatoes bring their own secret weapon to the dinner table—lycopene. Lycopene is a naturally occurring chemical called a carotenoid, a pigment that gives plants, fruits, and vegetables their color. It also boasts powerful antioxidants, molecules that fight the free radicals in our bodies that cause cell damage and can contribute to heart disease. Unlike other carotenoids, lycopene doesn’t change into Vitamin A in our bodies, even when heated, making foods that contain it easy to add to your diet. Lycopene can help you balance cholesterol levels and maintain a healthy blood pressure. In several studies, lycopene has also been linked to dramatic reductions in the risk for heart disease, stroke, and premature death, even in people with low blood antioxidant levels or high levels of oxidative stress.

Because of lycopene’s versatility, tomatoes are just as healthy raw as they are in spaghetti sauces, chilis, tomato soup, and tomato sauce. Just be sure to watch out for added salt and sugar in processed varieties.


Green tea has the highest levels of the four main types of catechins, natural flavonoids that make up about 25% of green tea leaf composition. Catechins are released when tea leaves are infused in hot water and easily distributed throughout the body, where they help do everything from reduce inflammation, triglycerides, and oxidative stress to the growth of the soft muscle tissue that can lead to hardened arteries and high blood pressure. All of this works to lower the risk of developing blood clots, heart attacks, cardiomyopathy, and congestive heart failure.

Research suggests 3-5 cups of green tea a day is sufficient to reap all the heart-healthy benefits.


Resveratrol is a polyphenol, a type of naturally occurring, highly powerful antioxidant that works like a protective coating for cells in the lining of the heart’s blood vessels. By preventing damage to blood vessels and serving as a natural blood thinner, resveratrol (and moderate alcohol in general) may help increase levels of HDL cholesterol, lower levels of LDL, protect against cholesterol buildup, and keep blood clots from forming.

Red wine contains 3-10 times more resveratrol than other wine, with Malbec, Petite Sirah, St. Laurent, and Pinot Noir having the highest resveratrol content. However, grapes may provide similar benefits, so if you don’t drink wine, don’t worry—a glass of grape juice may serve you just as well.


Curcumin is the main active ingredient found in turmeric. It is a polyphenol molecule with a chemical structure that can neutralize the free radicals that cause cell damage in our bodies specifically by improving the function of the endothelium. The endothelium is a single layer of cells that line the blood vessels and help keep blood flow moving throughout the body. Healthy, relaxed vessels allow for efficient blood flow, but inflammation, stress, medications, and high blood pressure can cause the vessels to constrict and narrow, putting you at greater risk for atherosclerosis and other heart disease. By mitigating the impact of high blood sugar, reducing chronic inflammation, balancing cholesterol levels, and limiting the damage that contributes to early plaque formation and arterial narrowing, curcumin can help limit the cascade of events that can lead to heart attacks, heart failure, and stroke.

Curcumin may also be effective in delaying cellular senescence, a biological process during which cells age and permanently stop dividing, and in reducing senescence-associated oxidative stress, both of which can lead to vascular dysfunction.

Turmeric (and curcumin) are common spices that are easy to add into your cooking. You can also drink turmeric tea.

Improve Your Heart Health with Comprehensive Care from CardioVascular Health Clinic

At CardioVascular Health Clinic, we combine innovative, cutting-edge interventional care with whole-person wellness to provide comprehensive cardiovascular services that help you live a longer, healthier life. Our team of experts, including Dr. Marcus Smith, is dedicated to delivering personalized, integrative treatment plans that extend beyond our office, working to find creative ways to incorporate better heart health into your daily routine for sustainable results and exceptional outcomes.

Give your heart the very best with caring, compassionate, and comprehensive cardiovascular services from CardioVascular Health Clinic and schedule an appointment today.

Patient Resources

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I’m about one month out and things are so much better. At my two week evaluation my symptom score had gone from a 27 to a 7, and I’m sure it’s even better now. That speaks volumes. Now that I’m post recovery, there is no incontinence, I go to the bathroom much less and there are no ED side effects like there are with other procedures. In regard to my quality of life, well, I don’t maintain my life based on my proximity to a bathroom anymore.

Blaine P., M.D.
Professional staff working in a beautiful facility with great doctors who sincerely care about their patients. Without Dr. Schmidt's skill, I would have needed heart bypass surgery instead of a stent. Follow-up has been thorough. I can't recommend them highly enough.
LeAnn H.

Dr. Jim Melton and all the staff are fantastic. He is an excellent surgeon and his team is GREAT!!!! I just had surgery at the surgery center, I have only great things to say about my experience. Without him I really don't think I would be here to write this. If you’re looking for a good cardiovascular team, they are a 5 star for sure.

Susie H.

Dr. Parsons and staff are amazing. He truly listened to me from the consult. Staff showed genuine care for my progress post procedure. I had my follow up appointment today so satisfied with results. Blake made me comfortable from the start. He is an activist for uterine fibroids treatment beyond the standard.

Tamara M.

Professional and caring staff. Dr. Smith is very knowledgeable and shows genuine concern for your personal health. I enjoyed the background music in the procedure room, it really adds to the relaxing atmosphere.

David L.

Dr. John Schrader is the most personable doctor we know. He stays on top of my dads health care and is genuinely concerned about his health. We never leave his office with questions. He answers them all. Even questions we don’t think of. Always professional but never cold or bad bedside manner. In our opinion he is THE BEST around.
Thank you Dr Schrader.

Kathy J.

I came to Dr. Warren by a self referral for mals when it took me 8yrs 50+ doctors and thousands of dollars spent on no answers. My first visit I was scared I was just going to be gaslighted just like the past however I was pleasantly shocked when Dr. Warren immediately believed me. She took the time to review many disk I had brought from past tests. She never once dismissed me and listened to ever word I had to say. She scheduled one last test to confirm the diagnosis then I was scheduled for surgery right away. Surgery was a success and I can’t thank her and her staff enough. Dr. Warren truly saved my life.

Angie W.

Dr. Garner literally saved my life 18 months ago and I've followed him to his new practice with Cardiovascular Health. He explains things so clearly, listens and is just a very nice person. His staff is great, too! I highly recommend!

D Watts

Some of the nicest staff that I have ever dealt with!! They have been so incredibly awesome to my mom!! Would definitely recommend them to anyone!! Thank you so much for being so great with her!!

Christy G.

The staff, the nurses, and Dr. Parsons were all amazing. Everything was simple and went well – very Bravo Zulu (military phrase meaning "well done"). In addition to the great staff at CardioVascular Health Clinic, the facilities were clean and well maintained. I have no complaints about anything. The whole experience was A1. I would recommend Dr. Parsons to anyone. He made a huge impact on my life.

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