Tips for a Heart Healthy Diet
Your heart is an organ that affects, and is affected by, nearly all aspects of your life – including diet. Healthy food choices can reduce your risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke as well as specific risk factors like high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Making the right food choices can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be confusing. Healthy eating includes a variety of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, unsaturated vegetable oils like safflower or olive oil, low-fat dairy, unsalted nuts, legumes and fish or skinless poultry.
- Healthy fats like unsalted nuts, olive oil, flax seed and avocados
- Fruit, vegetables and legumes like lentils and other beans
- High-fiber, low-sugar whole grain cereals, breads and pastas
- High-quality protein such as fish, skinless poultry and lean meats
- Low-fat dairy and natural cheese
- Deep fried food, fast food and snack foods
- Packaged food, especially those high in sodium and sugar
- White bread, sugary cereals and refined pasta or rice
- Processed meat such as bacon, sausage, deli meats or fried chicken
- Yogurt with added sugar or processed cheese
- Sugar sweetened beverages, candy, cookies and grain based desserts
To help you keep it all straight – and understand the reasoning behind the recommendations – here are 10 simple rules for a heart healthy diet.
1. Limit Bad Fat
Specifically, this means saturated fat and trans fat. Foods containing saturated fat – such as fatty beef, bacon, sausage, lamb, pork, butter, cheese and other dairy products made from whole or two-percent milk – raise the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your blood. (Lean cuts of meat, however, can be healthy – more on that later.) High cholesterol, in turn, increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Trans fats are both naturally occurring and artificial, however most trans fats – also known as trans fatty acids – are found in processed food and labeled as partially hydrogenated oils. Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken) and baked goods (doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies) as well as frozen pizza and stick margarine are common culprits. Trans fats raise your bad cholesterol levels, lower your good cholesterol levels and can also increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults limit their consumption of saturated fat to five to six percent of their total calories.
2. Say No to Salt
Too much sodium in the bloodstream can increase water retention in blood vessels and increase blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure puts greater strain on the heart and can contribute to plaque build-up that blocks blood flow. Additionally, a high-sodium diet can also lead to bloating, puffiness and weight gain.
Passing on the saltshaker is a good start, but reducing sodium takes a bit more effort and attention. Check the labels on foods you buy at the store, they are required by law to include the amount of sodium in the product. Likewise request no added salt when ordering at a restaurant. More than 75 percent of sodium intake comes from processed, prepackaged and restaurant foods. Just as daunting: The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, which is approximately the size of a teaspoon of salt.
Still, it’s worth the work. Cutting down on salt can reduce risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis, stomach cancer, kidney disease, kidney stones, enlarged heart, headaches, puffiness, bloating, and weight gain.
3. Opt for Low-Fat Dairy
Dairy can be a serious source of saturated fat, so when at all possible, opt for fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as skim or one-percent milk. Other smart options include low-fat cheese such as part-skim ricotta, dry-curd cottage cheese or natural (as opposed to processed) cheese. The fats in dairy are associated with high blood cholesterol – one of the six main risk factors for heart disease – however, eating low-fat dairy is associated with a reduced risk of stroke.
4. Eat (Any Type of) Produce
Eating fruits and vegetables is an essential part of a heart healthy diet because they are low in calories and high in fiber and other nutrients. In season produce may taste the most fresh – and provide natural variety to your diet – but canned or frozen fruits and vegetables can be sufficiently nutritious as well.
Frozen fruits are preserved at peak ripeness and can maintain their nutritional value for several months. Still, be sure to check the labels for sodium levels and try to buy options with no added sugar. Canned fruits and vegetables can also present a risk for added salt or sugar. Read the labels! Produce that is canned in water or its own juice is your best bet, and be sure to drain and rinse any that are kept in a light syrup.
5. Go for Whole Grains
Whole grains contain B vitamins, fiber, folic acid, iron, magnesium, selenium and other nutrients that can be lost in the refining process. Whole wheat, oats and oatmeal, rye, barley, popcorn, brown and wild rice and buckwheat are all popular types of whole grains. Quinoa, while not technically a grain, is another common choice.
These whole grains can help improve blood cholesterol levels and lower risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
6. Fill Up On (All Types of) Fiber
Dietary fiber comes in two forms: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. The former is especially associated with reduced levels of bad cholesterol and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, but all foods containing dietary fiber offer healthy benefits.
Another bonus? Foods that are high in fiber can help you feel full on fewer calories thereby supporting weight loss efforts and healthy weight management. You should try to eat at least 28 grams of dietary fiber per day, but the average intake is less than half that amount.
Oats and oat bran offer the most concentrated sources of soluble fiber, while wheat, rye, rice and other grains are mostly insoluble fiber. Legumes, beans, and peas as well as certain fruits, like pears, and vegetables, like peas, are also good sources of both soluble and insoluble fibers.
7. Choose Meat Carefully
For many people, meat is their primary source of protein, but many favorites – burgers, steak, bacon – are also major sources of saturated fat. Shifting to heart healthy proteins can help reduce the risk factors of heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends fish, shellfish, skinless poultry and trimmed lean meats, which includes many cuts of pork. You should consume no more than 6 ounces, cooked, per day, and the AHA encourages you to eat at least two servings of baked or grilled fish each week. Beans, peas, lentils or tofu mixed with whole grains such as brown rice can also provide complete protein sources without the saturated fat levels.
8. Prepare for Success
An easy way to boost the health of your eating habits is to reconsider how – and how much – you’re cooking. This means portion control – a 3 ounce portion of protein is the size of a deck of cards, or about half a chicken breast – and it means prep. Bake, broil or roast meat instead of pan or deep-frying. Pour off the fat after browning and remove the skin and fat off poultry before cooking. (However, when roasting a chicken or turkey, remove the skin after cooking but before carving.)
9. Drink Water
For the most part, adults should drink water or non-sugar-sweetened beverages like black coffee or tea. Soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks, including juice, can be major sources of added sugar. Sweeteners offer zero nutrients but often contribute to weight gain and obesity, which are risk factors for heart disease. A can of regular soda contains eight teaspoons of sugar, or about 130 calories, and even diet sodas containing artificial sweeteners are doing nothing to help you curb a sweet tooth.
10. Stay Active
A heart healthy diet requires more than just evaluating what you’re eating. Exercise offers a huge assist whether your goal is to lose weight, strengthen your heart or simply maintain the healthy shape you’re in. Working out regularly can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels and it can also keep your metabolism up to speed. It is also a great way to reduce stress. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week.
A heart healthy diet forms the foundation of fighting heart disease. Eating well can help you maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels while also reducing your risk for obesity and diabetes. Moreover, research from Northwestern Medicine shows that following a healthy diet as early as young adulthood can have an impact on heart health as early as your 30s. Which is to say, there’s no time like the present to affirm or adopt your own heart healthy diet.