THE BLOG
02/12/2014 11:58 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2014

6 Surprising Heart-Healthy Foods

When it comes to heart health, you may be well aware that it's a good idea to cut down on butter and bacon and boost your intake of fruits, veggies and whole grains. But there are some foods that you might never expect to see on a "heart healthy" list that studies show have real cardiovascular benefits. Here are six heart-smart surprises:

Beer
When it comes to alcohol and heart health, red wine generally takes center stage. Yet research now shows that other types of alcohol, like beer, can be beneficial when it comes to a healthy heart. A recent study showed that when consumed in moderation, having alcohol at least three or four times per week helped to reduce the risk of heart disease in at-risk individuals. Whether it was beer, red wine, white wine, or liquor, the study found that the type of beverage didn't impact the cardioprotective benefits. Further research supports this claim, showing that all alcoholic drinks are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, and that a substantial portion of the benefit is from the alcohol itself, rather than other components of each type of drink. If you're watching your weight, stick to a light beer to cut calories and always drink in moderation (maximum one drink for women, two for men).

Cranberries
It's fitting that cranberries have a bright red hue, because this tiny berry is bursting with big heart health benefits. Studies show that cranberries are rich in specific compounds, referred to as phenolic acids and flavonoids, that have a heart-protective effect. There is also evidence that these bioactive compounds have a positive benefit for blood pressure, glucose metabolism, oxidative stress, and inflammation. Expand your cranberry repertoire beyond typical Thanksgiving cranberry sauce and use this heart-healthy, versatile ingredient year round. For a simple and colorful side dish that incorporates this all-star berry, try this festive Cranberry and Green Bean Side Dish to take your next meal to a whole new level.

Canola Oil
While most people know that olive oil is a heart healthy swap for butter, many of us overlook an even more versatile, heart smart all-star: canola oil. With just 7 percent saturated fat, canola oil is 93 percent healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and has the least amount of saturated fat of any common oil. In fact, based on many scientific studies, the FDA determined that canola oil may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease when used in place of saturated fat. Best of all, canola oil is ideal for just about every type of cooking. It's neutral taste and light texture makes it perfect for baking, sauteeing and grilling. For a lighter, healthier dessert, try this amazing Apple Raisin Crumble.

Lean Beef
When it comes to heart health, red meat often gets a bad rap, but here's some good news for all steak lovers. Research shows that eating lean beef can actually help to lower cholesterol levels as part of a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle. In a recent study conducted by researchers from Penn State University, individuals who ate lean beef daily as part of a heart-healthy diet experienced a 10 percent decrease in the bad form of cholesterol (LDL). Other research supports this finding, showing that when consumed as part of a diet low in saturated fat, lean red meat does not increase cardiovascular risk factors. According to the American Heart Association, beef that is labeled "loin" and "round" is your best bet, as it usually has the least amount of fat. When it comes to ground beef, 95 percent extra lean is the best option. For a lean beef-inspired recipe, be sure to give this Thai Beef Salad a try.

Tea
If you're looking to boost your heart health, here's a TEA-riffic option: tea! Decades of research show that tea -- the second most consumed beverage in the world -- may help prevent chronic illnesses, including heart disease. Studies show that all types of tea have a beneficial effect on blood vessel function, reducing the risk of cardiovascular related events, like stroke and heart attack. Additionally, special compounds in tea, known as catechins, help to promote greater antioxidant capacity, which means even more protection against heart disease. Recent research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that drinking as little as one cup of tea per day is enough to reap all of the heart health benefits. In fact, that study indicated that consuming one cup of tea per day is enough to reduce incidence of stroke and heart attacks by 8-10 percent. Whether green, white, black, or herbal, all varieties of tea are good for your heart, so go ahead and get sipping. And, as an added bonus, unsweetened tea is calorie-free, so this heart-healthy beverage won't wreak havoc to your waistline.

Potatoes
When it comes to carbohydrates, potatoes are a great choice. One medium potato clocks in at 118 calories and is a terrific source of filling fiber. Potatoes are also high in magnesium and potassium -- a powerful duo when it comes to heart healthy nutrients. Research shows that a diet rich in these two vital nutrients can help to lower blood pressure. Studies also suggest that the ratio of potassium to sodium may be more important for blood pressure and heart health than the amount of either individually, so keep that in mind when preparing your potatoes, and use sodium-free alternatives to spice up your spuds. Whether mashed, roasted or baked, potatoes are an inexpensive and simple side dish that will add a heart healthy boost to your favorite meals. If you're looking for a healthy potato recipe, check out these Slimmed-Down Scalloped Potatoes will not disappoint.