A red heart is a universal symbol of love synonymous (in some parts of the world) with Valentine’s Day and showing affection for those you care for most. While sending a red heart emoji via text or sharing a box of (dark, fair trade, and vegan) heart-shaped and chocolate-covered cherries may convey all the feels, heart-healthy foods can also say, “I love you.”
Science supports that the optimal diet for improving heart health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is whole food and plant-centric. These findings are no surprise considering cardiovascular disease is virtually nonexistent in parts of the world where people thrive on whole plant-based foods, like those living in the Blue Zone areas, such as Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California.
The beautiful rainbow of colors found in the plant kingdom isn’t just candy for the eyes. These colors are manifested through phytochemicals, compounds specific only to plants, that protect them from their environment. Scientists have identified over 10,000 phytochemicals, many of which offer individual health benefits. For example, the natural pigments of your everyday fruits and veggies have associations with various antioxidants — such as carotenoids, flavonoids, and anthocyanidins — that help prevent cell damage from free radicals and reduce chronic disease risk.
And among all of those potent phytochemicals, it just so happens that red-hued plant-based foods are among the best for heart health!
Why Red Foods?
Naturally occurring red foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit, apricots, and watermelons contain red pigments called carotenoids (lycopene, specifically), anthocyanins, and betacyanins that contain antioxidant properties beneficial for heart health. In addition, some red foods like beetroot, radishes, and red grapes contain polyphenols which produce nitric oxide in your body, a molecule that may help to dilate blood vessels and reduce blood pressure.
So a colorful, heart-healthy diet just wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of red foods. And, thankfully, there are many from which to choose! Below, you’ll find some of our favorite red foods that provide boatloads of nutrition — especially heart-healthy antioxidants — to support overall well-being. We’ll also share some red-inspired tasty recipes to get you busy in the kitchen preparing delicious dishes to keep your heart healthy, mind vibrant, and body active.
Red Foods for Heart Health
When you think of natural red foods, beets might spring to mind first. This root veggie contains vitamins, minerals, and nitrates, substances that your body converts into nitric oxide. Nitric oxide promotes blood vessel dilation, which may improve blood pressure and cardiovascular health. Important note: The intense red color of beets may change the color of your urine and stool to a shade of red, so don’t be alarmed if you notice this at your post-beet bathroom visit!
Besides being juicy and scrumptious, the tiny but mighty pomegranate aril is supercharged with nutritional value. Pomegranates contain a plethora of antioxidants, such as tannins, anthocyanins, ascorbic acid, and flavonoids, that (you guessed it!) protect your cells against free radical damage. They’re highly anti-inflammatory, making them a fantastic food for disease prevention. In addition, other preparations made from pomegranate (including its juice and extract) help prevent several health conditions, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. In terms of cardiovascular health, pomegranate has been found to protect against the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which helps prevent atherosclerosis development and reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.
3. Red Onion
Red onions get their bright hue from a group of flavonoids known as flavonols (anthocyanins, specifically). Over 25 different anthocyanins have been reported from red onions. They’re one of the best sources of quercetin, an antioxidant flavonol known to help maintain normal blood pressure.
In addition, red onions are loaded with the heart-healthy phytochemical allicin. There is something to be said for that strong aroma and flavor, other than that chopping onions can bring tears to your eyes. That same phytochemical is also responsible for many health-promoting effects that can impact nearly every cell in the body. For example, allicin protects the cardiovascular system by enhancing antioxidant activity, lowering the level of reactive oxygen species, and stimulating glutathione production. Also, allicin may help to reduce high blood pressure and LDL cholesterol.
And, last but not least, onions are a rich source of dietary fiber, which studies have shown may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
It’s fairly simple to add red onion to just about everything from stir-fries to bean burgers to avocado toast. But, if you’re looking for more inspiration, try Beet Burger with Smashed Avocado and Pickled Red Onion or Dry Roasted Red Onions with Balsamic Vinaigrette.
With thousands of varieties of tomatoes, there’s no shortage of ways to enjoy this healthy diet and garden staple. Tomatoes are a wildly popular and widely consumed fruit around the world. Similar to other red fruits and veggies, the bright red coloring of tomatoes is a result of the heart-protective carotenoid lycopene. This powerful antioxidant is beneficial for heart health because it can protect against free radical damage, lower the risks of stroke and heart attack, reduce LDL cholesterol, and help prevent blood clots. To get the biggest lycopene boost out of these juicy beauties, consider cooking some of your tomatoes instead of always eating them raw. While cooking tomatoes enhances the absorbability of lycopene, it can destroy water-soluble nutrients, like vitamin C, so mix it up for optimal overall nutrition.
5. Tart Cherries
Who doesn’t love a big bowl of freshly picked cherries on a hot summer day? In addition to their plump texture and delicious flavor, sweet and tart cherries are rich in polyphenols and vitamin C, which help protect against cardiovascular disease due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Tart cherries are also rich in anthocyanins, another antioxidant that combats heart disease and supports muscle health and cell structures, including the heart. Additionally, regular consumption of tart cherry juice contributes to reduced cardiovascular disease risk factors by helping to lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol.
Grapefruit is beneficial for healthy weight management, which supports a healthy heart. Research also shows that consuming grapefruit regularly can help regulate high blood pressure and cholesterol levels in the blood. Plus, grapefruit is an excellent source of dietary fiber and potassium, two essential nutrients for heart health. Low potassium intake has been associated with elevated blood pressure and risk of stroke, while adequate consumption may protect against these cardiometabolic risk factors and improve cardiovascular health.
7. Red Kidney Beans
Beans, beans, the magical fruit, the more you eat, the more you boost your heart health! Legumes are excellent sources of insoluble and soluble fiber, which have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol, increase HDL cholesterol, manage blood sugar, and promote a healthy weight. The high fiber content of beans makes them an ideal red food for your heart. High dietary fiber intake has repeatedly been shown to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, promoting a healthy heart. In addition, research shows that beans, like red kidney beans, may reduce your risk of cardiometabolic disease, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease — the leading cause of death worldwide.
To incorporate red kidney beans onto your plate, try this Red Bean Gumbo with Okra or Fragrant Kidney Bean Lentil Dal.
Red Food Recipes
So many red plant foods are bursting with eye-catching hues, mouthwatering sweet and savory flavors, and plenty of cardiovascular-supporting nutrients that it was tough to choose just seven (hence our additions above)! Our collection of red foods for a healthy heart is a great way to expose yourself to the vibrant world of colorful plants or introduce your palate to the endless possibilities that fruits and veg can offer. Whether you’re trying these foods for the first time or they’re among your tried-and-true favorites, we hope you (and your heart) love these recipes as much as we do!
Rich in anthocyanins, tart cherries are a heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory powerhouse! If you ever wondered if you could “have your cake and eat it, too,” this creamy Dark Cherry Smoothie Bowl might be your answer. There is something almost magical about the combination of tart dark cherries and creamy plant-based yogurt — not to mention all of the crunchy toppings that your heart desires (literally)!
If you love pomegranates but aren’t sure how to use them to their fullest potential, then this gorgeous fruit spread is for you! Pomegranate Pepper Spread brings together slightly sweet pomegranate with spicy jalapeño — and the flavor combination is out of this world! Not a spice fan? No problem! Bell peppers also work well. Bonus that pomegranates are an anti-inflammatory super fruit, making them a great addition to a heart-healthy diet.
Let’s see: a mouthwatering combination of fresh spinach, juicy strawberries, delectably crunchy pecans, and umami red onion, drizzled with a unique beet balsamic vinaigrette. Do you know what that sounds like to us? A salad packed with vibrantly hued, heart-healthy foods that is sure to be a plant-based win!
Not only do Pressure Cooker Monday Red Beans and Rice make a delicious weekday (or any day) meal, but red kidney beans also have the ability to help heal your heart! Legumes reduce your risk of cardiometabolic disease with their high fiber content. Red beans also contain anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant that keeps your heart (and other organs) in tip-top shape. So get your heart health on, and share the wealth with your family and friends — this delicious pot of beans is meant for a crowd!
Beets are the main component of this satisfyingly juicy burger that is big on taste and health-promoting nutrients. And, thanks to them, this is a red-hued burger that is actually good for your heart! Beets contain nitric oxide, which promotes blood vessel dilation to lower blood pressure, support heart function, and improve oxygen use — all critical functions for a healthy heart. This hearty plant burger is also loaded with healthy amounts of iron, vitamin A, B vitamins, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. Enjoy these tasty veggie patties grill-side and relish in the fact that your heart is as happy as your belly.
Lentil and Quinoa Stuffed Peppers are chock-full of heart-healthy foods including lentils, tomatoes, quinoa, onions, and bell pepper. Red peppers contain the same bright red carotenoid, lycopene, as tomatoes, which can protect against free radical damage and lower the risk of stroke and heart disease. What’s more, these delicious beauties are filling, tasty, and nourishing in more ways than one!
If you typically give grapefruit a pass, we’re hoping that trying grapefruit caramelized with cinnamon and maple syrup will turn you into a grapefruit lover! While sweetness and cinnamon might not be flavors you associate with the fruit, the combination is — dare we say it — delightful. And grapefruit is also a winner in our book because (in addition to its concentration of vitamin C) it is an excellent source of dietary fiber and potassium, two essential nutrients for heart health!
Red, Red, It’s Good for Your Heart!
One of the best ways to support your heart is with what you eat. The phytochemicals and antioxidants, as well as other nutrients found in colorful fruits and vegetables, promote longevity by helping to improve heart health and prevent other chronic diseases. Specifically, red fruits and veggies contain certain pigments that protect against heart disease (the number one killer globally) and other heart-related issues, such as high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, atherosclerosis, and stroke. Adding more red foods to your plate with these nutritious, whole-food plant-based recipes can help to protect your heart and add healthy years to your life.
Tell us in the comments:
- Which red food on this list is your favorite?
- What other red foods would you add that are not included on this list?
- Which red food recipe are you most excited to try first?
Featured Image: iStock.com/manyakotic