Exercise is good for your heart, but you might be able to get some of those benefits without sweating. Researchers discovered a protein called cardiotrophin 1 makes the heart respond the same way it does to a workout.
In tests on mice and rats, the protein prompted healthy heart muscle and blood vessels to grow. And like exercise, it seemed to work best when it was applied consistently. If cardiotrophin treatment stopped, the animals' hearts reverted to their original condition.
Related: Heart healthy diet
The 12 best diets for heart health
The 12 best diets for heart health
#12 The Fertility Diet
According to research from the Nurses' Health Study, on which The Fertility Diet is based, women who consume “good” fats, whole grains and plant protein improve their egg supply, while those who eat “bad” fats, refined carbohydrates and red meat may make fewer eggs and increase the risk for ovulatory infertility. Your heart may benefit from such an approach, too, suggests research finding that replacing animal protein with good carbohydrates might protect against heart attack, stroke or early death from cardiovascular disease and improve artery health and blood flow.
#8 (tie) Dr. Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Diet
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet, which is based on the heart-healthy principles of the Mediterranean diet, reflects creator Andrew Weil’s belief that certain foods cause or combat systemic inflammation. According to the American Heart Association, inflammation is not a proven cause of cardiovascular disease, but it is common among heart disease patients. Plus, the program emphasizes a steady supply of omega-3 fatty acids, which research suggests protect against heart disease.
#8 (tie) Flexitarian Diet
Flexitarian is a marriage of two words: flexible and vegetarian. The plan revolves around the idea that you don’t have to eliminate meat completely to reap the health benefits associated with vegetarianism; an occasional burger is OK. One large 2015 study of more than 450,000 Europeans found that those who ate a diet of at least 70 percent plant-based foods had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who were least "pro-vegetarian." Earlier research suggests a semi-vegetarian diet also helps promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. As a bonus, it's good for the environment, one reviewer pointed out.
#8 (tie) Mayo Clinic Diet
Experts agree the Mayo Clinic Diet is a sound option for preventing or controlling heart problems. It focuses on coaching dieters to develop healthy, lasting habits around which foods they choose to eat and which to avoid. Plus, it reflects the medical community’s widely accepted definition of a heart-healthy diet: heavy on fruit, veggies and whole grains but light on saturated fat and salt.
#8 (tie) Vegetarian Diet
A vegetarian diet has the potential to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to experts, as long as vegetarians don’t load up on full-fat dairy and processed foods. As one expert reminds, "vegetarian diets can be healthy or unhealthy"; the beer-and-popcorn version is the latter. Still, if you take a well-informed approach, a vegetarian plan is a good bet for heart-conscious dieters, especially those who don’t have the heart to eat animals anyway.
#7 Engine 2 Diet
This low-fat, “plant strong” diet was created by Rip Esselstyn, a firefighter, former professional athlete and medical scion. It’s thought to prevent and often reverse diseases, like heart disease, caused by the so-called Standard American Diet and should also help keep cholesterol and blood pressure in check. If you adopt the Engine 2 Diet, you’ll load up on fruit, vegetables and whole grains and slash all animal products, processed foods and vegetable oils from your diet.
#6 Vegan Diet
Veganism earned high marks for its potential to boost cardiovascular health. It emphasizes the right foods – fruit, veggies and whole grains – while steering dieters away from meat, dairy and salty, processed choices. In a 12-year study that compared 6,000 vegetarians with 5,000 meat-eaters, for example, researchers found that the vegans in the group had a 57 percent lower risk of ischemic heart disease than the meat eaters. (The condition involves reduced heart pumping due to coronary artery disease and often leads to heart failure.) Just keep in mind that vegans may need to take supplements to make up for some heart-protective nutrients like the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.
#5 MIND Diet
This plan is a mashup of two other expert-endorsed diets – DASH and Mediterranean – and zeroes in on the foods in each that specifically affect brain health (think green leafy vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine). Turns out, the heart likes the same foods, studies show. A downfall of the MIND diet: Physical activity, proven important for heart health, is not addressed in the plan, some experts pointed out.
#4 Mediterranean Diet
What can’t this eating style do? The Mediterranean diet has been associated with a decreased risk for heart disease, and it’s also been shown to reduce blood pressure and “bad” LDL cholesterol. One 2015 study even showed that Italian vegans, vegetarians and others who followed a mostly Mediterranean diet had more short-chain fatty acids, which are linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Since the approach largely shuns saturated fat (which contributes to high cholesterol) and includes healthier mono- and polyunsaturated fats in moderation (which can reduce cholesterol), you’ll do your heart a favor by following it.
#3 TLC Diet
The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet, created by the National Institutes of Health’s National Cholesterol Education Program, claims to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol by 8 to 10 percent in six weeks. Research concurs: In one Journal of Lipid Research study, participants who shifted from a typical American diet to the TLC Diet reduced their LDL cholesterol by 11 percent after 32 days. No matter your aim, the diet is "very healthy and safe for all individuals," one expert said.
#1 (tie) DASH Diet
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension program, or DASH, was created to help control high blood pressure – and it works. One expert called it "by far the best with data to back up lowering hypertension." Indeed, extensive research suggests it's one of your best bets if you want to lower your blood pressure as well as improve other markers of cardiovascular health. If you adopt the diet, you’ll emphasize the foods you’ve always been told to eat (fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy), while shunning those we’ve grown to love (calorie- and fat-laden sweets and red meat).
#1 (tie) The Ornish Diet
This rules-heavy plan has ranked No. 1 for heart health for seven consecutive years, although this year it shares the title with the DASH diet. Followers adhere to a strict regimen: Only 10 percent of calories can come from fat, very little of it saturated, and most foods with any cholesterol or refined carbohydrates, oils, excessive caffeine and nearly all animal products are banned. Research suggests the Ornish Diet, combined with stress-management techniques, exercise, social support and smoking cessation, could actually reverse heart disease.
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The protein could also heal the heart. In some tests on rodents, cardiotrophin "dramatically improve[d] heart function" after heart failure and even repaired damage to the organ.
Exercise can help, but people with heart failure can't always exercise. Getting the benefits without the physical stress could improve life for a lot of people.
Researchers hope to push forward with human trials, but it'll be at least several years before any treatments show up. Until then, you'll have to get your exercise the old-fashioned way.
Related: Best and worst protein choices
The Best Protein Choices and Worst for Your Health and the Environment
The Best Protein Choices and Worst for Your Health and the Environment
Learn which proteins are best (and worst) for you and the world around you.
1. Lentils: Eat These Often
The most climate-friendly protein. We love lentils because they deliver fiber and nutrients, such as iron and folate.
2. Tomatoes: Eat These Often
Eating more fruits and vegetables can help ward off disease. They’re low in fat and calories and give you fiber and important micronutrients. But, EatingWell’s Nutrition Editors note, they don’t provide much protein (1 gram per tomato), so also make sure to include higher protein sources in your diet.
3. Milk: Drink This Often
Choose organic and/or milk from grass-fed cows. EatingWell editors recommend choosing nonfat or low-fat (1%) milk. Buying local milk will have a lower carbon footprint, too. Look for milk that is rBGH-free (growth hormone).
4. Beans: Eat These Often
Beans deliver protein, fiber and nutrients. Opt for dry beans, when you can, for the lowest carbon footprint.
5. Tofu: Eat These Often
Excellent source of plant protein. Keep in mind that if the label doesn't say USDA Certified Organic or non-GMO, there is a good chance it was made from genetically-modified soybeans.
6. Broccoli: Eat This Often
Broccoli gives you only 2 grams of protein per cup, so while it is a low-carbon food (and great for your health), the EatingWell Nutrition Editors note that you’ll need to include higher-protein sources in your diet.
7. Yogurt: Eat This Often
Choose organic and low-fat or nonfat yogurt when possible.
8. Nuts: Eat These Often
High in protein and healthy monounsaturated fats.
9. Peanut Butter: Eat This Often
EatingWell’s Nutrition Editors recommend looking for natural peanut butter to avoid extra sugar and partially hydrogenated oils.
10. Rice: Eat This Often
The EatingWell’s Nutrition Editors recommend choosing brown rice since it is less processed than white, retaining the fiber and other nutrients. Whole grains, such as quinoa or millet are also good choices.
11. Potatoes: Eat These Often
Buy organic when possible, since conventionally grown potatoes tend to be high in pesticide residues (they’re on the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list of produce most contaminated with pesticides.)
12. Eggs: Eat These Occasionally
For the lowest environmental impact, pick organic and/or pasture-raised. Look for certified humane.
13. Tuna: Eat These Occasionally
Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. EatingWell’s Nutrition Editors choose light tuna to reduce mercury exposure.
14. Chicken: Eat This Occasionally
Best meat pick. EatingWell’s Nutrition Editors recommend that you cook it skinless to minimize saturated fat intake. Opt for organic, pasture-raised or antibiotic free for the lowest environmental impact.
15. Turkey: Eat These Occasionally
Poultry has the lowest carbon footprint of any meat, and turkey is a good choice. Opt for organic or antibiotic-free, but avoid less healthy processed forms (cold cuts, sausage, etc.).
16. Salmon: Eat These Occasionally
Choose wild salmon over farmed, when possible for the lowest carbon footprint. EatingWell’s nutrition editors note that salmon adds healthy omega-3s to your diet, so eat it and other fatty fish a few times a week.
17. Pork: Eat This Less
Choose pasture-raised, certified humane, when possible. For your health and the environment, skip processed pork, like bacon.
18. Cheese: Eat This Less
Stick to a single serving (1.5 ounces for hard cheese)—plus using a sharply flavored cheese can help you get the maximum impact for less. The EWG also recommends choosing organic and low-fat cheese, when possible. EWG lists cheese as the 3rd worst protein choice in part because they looked at 4 ounces of cheese—that’s almost three 1.5-ounce servings!
19. Beef: Eat This Less
Look for grass-fed and organic. Although pricier than conventional, it’s a healthier choice for you and the environment. Grass-fed beef is richer in heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Plus, organic, grass-fed cattle are raised in a way that minimizes the carbon emissions from manure. The EWG also recommends avoiding processed beef products, such as sausage.
20. Lamb: Eat This Less
The EWG ranked lamb as the worst choice based on carbon footprint and recommends choosing grass-fed, when possible. Since it’s not widely eaten in the United States, it plays a smaller role in carbon impact than beef, however.