Your heart is the center of your cardiovascular system. It is involved in many of the daily functions that bring your body to life. So having a healthy heart is vital to your overall health. Two of the simplest yet most important ways to help your heart health are through diet and exercise.
Path to improved health
How does what I eat affect my heart?
The foods you eat can affect your weight, your hormones, and the health of your organs, including your heart. Eating a healthy diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Keeping your heart healthy by making healthier food choices isn’t as hard as it sounds! Just follow these tips for a heart-healthy diet.
• Choose healthy fats. Despite what you may have heard, some fats are actually good for you. When you use fats for cooking, choose monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil or canola oil. Avocados are also a good source of monounsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids are also healthy choices. Polyunsaturated fats are found in nuts and seeds. Omega-3 fats are found in fish such as tuna and salmon. In general, you should try to avoid trans fats. Trans fats are usually found in processed foods and snacks such as crackers or snack cakes. To see whether a food contains trans fats, look for the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient label.
• Go whole-grain. Whole-grain breads or pastas are higher in fiber and complex carbohydrates. Choose them instead of white breads or regular pastas for sandwiches and meals.
• Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. They contain fiber, vitamins and minerals that are good for your body. They also add flavor and variety to your diet.
• Prepare meat healthfully. Baking, broiling and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare meat and poultry. Trim any outside fat or skin before cooking. Lean cuts can be pan-broiled or stir-fried.
• Don’t forget beans. Dry beans, peas, and lentils offer protein and fiber. Once in a while, try substituting beans for meat in a favorite recipe, such as lasagna or chili.
• Choose low-fat dairy. Go for fat-free or low-fat versions of milk, yogurt, and cheese products. Eat no more than 4 egg yolks a week (use egg whites or egg substitutes).
• Pack in protein. Eat protein–rich foods, including fish, lean meats, skinless poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds, and beans.
• Try a diet. The DASH eating plan is a heart-healthy approach that lowers blood pressure and bad cholesterol in your blood. Or try the Mediterranean Dietfor one of the healthiest approaches to eating we know about.
What should I NOT eat?
A heart-healthy diet limits some nutrients. These include:
Sodium. Flavor foods with spices or no-salt seasonings instead of salt. Watch out for prepackaged foods, sauces, canned foods, and processed foods. They can all contain a high amount of sodium.
Saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are found in fatty meats, poultry skin, whole-milk dairy, butter, lard, and coconut and palm oils. Tans fats are found in some desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, stick margarines, and coffee creamers. Look for the words partially hydrogenated oil on the food label.
Added sugar. Sweetened drinks, snacks, and sweet treats are the main source of added sugars in the United States. These include sodas, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, cakes, pies, ice cream, candy, syrups, and jellies. Limit these types of foods and drinks.
Alcohol. Limit your intake of alcohol. Men should have no more than 2 drinks a day. Women should have no more than 1 drink per day. Too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and cause you to gain weight. It can also contribute to or worsen heart failure in some people.
For someone with heart disease, diet is a big deal. Along with other healthy habits, it can slow or even partially reverse the narrowing of the heart’s arteries and help prevent further complications.
You can help a loved one who has heart disease by adopting a diet that curbs LDL (”bad”) cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, lowers blood sugar, and helps with weight loss.
The best strategy: Focus on what the person with heart disease can eat, not just what’s off-limits. Research shows that adding heart-saving foods is just as important as cutting back on others.
These nine strategies will help you plan meals for someone with heart disease:
1. Serve more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Just about everyone could stand to eat more plant-based foods. They’re rich in fiber and other nutrients, and they can taste great in a salad, as a side dish, or as an entree. Watch that you don’t use too much fat or cheese when you prepare them.
2. Choose fat calories wisely by:
• Limit saturated fat (found in animal products).
• Avoid artificial trans fats as much as possible. Check ingredient lists for “partially hydrogenated” oils.
• When using added fats for cooking or baking, choose oils that are high in monounsaturated fat (for example, olive and peanut oil) or polyunsaturated fat (such as soybean, corn, and sunflower oils).
3. Serve a variety of protein-rich foods. Balance meals with lean meat, fish, and vegetable sources of protein.
4. Limit cholesterol. Cholesterol in foods, found in red meat and high-fat dairy products, can raise blood cholesterol levels, especially in high-risk people.
5. Serve the right kind of carbs. Include foods like brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, and sweet potatoes to add fiber and help control blood sugar levels. Avoid sugary foods.
6. Eat regularly. This helps someone with heart disease control blood sugar, burn fat more efficiently, and regulate cholesterol levels.
7. Cut back on salt. Too much salt is bad for blood pressure. Instead, use herbs, spices, or condiments to flavor foods.
8. Encourage hydration. Staying hydrated makes you feel energetic and eat less. Encourage your loved one to drink 32 to 64 ounces (about 1 to 2 liters) of water daily, unless their doctor has told them to limit fluids.
9. Keep serving sizes in check. It can help to use smaller plates and glasses, and to check food labels to see how much is in a serving, since it’s easy to eat more than you think. Some guidelines:
• 1 ounce of cheese is the size of a pair of dice.
• A serving of meat or tofu is the size of a deck of cards.
• 2 servings of rice or pasta are the size of a tennis ball.
Although you might know that eating certain foods can increase your heart disease risk, it’s often tough to change your eating habits. Whether you have years of unhealthy eating under your belt or you simply want to fine-tune your diet, here are eight heart-healthy diet tips. Once you know which foods to eat more of and which foods to limit, you’ll be on your way toward a heart-healthy diet.
1. Control your portion size
How much you eat is just as important as what you eat. Overloading your plate, taking seconds and eating until you feel stuffed can lead to eating more calories than you should. Portions served in restaurants are often more than anyone needs.
Use a small plate or bowl to help control your portions. Eat larger portions of low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and smaller portions of high-calorie, high-sodium foods, such as refined, processed or fast foods. This strategy can shape up your diet as well as your heart and waistline.
Keep track of the number of servings you eat. The recommended number of servings per food group may vary depending on the specific diet or guidelines you’re following. A serving size is a specific amount of food, defined by common measurements such as cups, ounces or pieces. For example, one serving of pasta is about 1/3 to 1/2 cup, or about the size of a hockey puck. A serving of meat, fish or chicken is about 2 to 3 ounces, or about the size and thickness of a deck of cards. Judging serving size is a learned skill. You may need to use measuring cups and spoons or a scale until you’re comfortable with your judgment.
2. Eat more vegetables and fruits
Vegetables and fruits are good sources of vitamins and minerals. Vegetables and fruits are also low in calories and rich in dietary fiber. Vegetables and fruits, like other plants or plant-based foods, contain substances that may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Eating more fruits and vegetables may help you cut back on higher calorie foods, such as meat, cheese and snack foods.
Featuring vegetables and fruits in your diet can be easy. Keep vegetables washed and cut in your refrigerator for quick snacks. Keep fruit in a bowl in your kitchen so that you’ll remember to eat it. Choose recipes that have vegetables or fruits as the main ingredients, such as vegetable stir-fry or fresh fruit mixed into salads.
Fruits and vegetables to choose Fruits and vegetables to limit
• Fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits
• Low-sodium canned vegetables
• Canned fruit packed in juice or water • Coconut
• Vegetables with creamy sauces
• Fried or breaded vegetables
• Canned fruit packed in heavy syrup
• Frozen fruit with sugar added
3. Select whole grains
Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that play a role in regulating blood pressure and heart health. You can increase the amount of whole grains in a heart-healthy diet by making simple substitutions for refined grain products. Or be adventuresome and try a new whole grain, such as whole-grain farro, quinoa or barley.
Grain products to choose Grain products to limit or avoid
• Whole-wheat flour
• Whole-grain bread, preferably 100% whole-wheat bread or 100% whole-grain bread
• High-fiber cereal with 5 g or more fiber in a serving
• Whole grains such as brown rice, barley and buckwheat (kasha)
• Whole-grain pasta
• Oatmeal (steel-cut or regular) • White, refined flour
• White bread
• Frozen waffles
• Corn bread
• Quick breads
• Egg noodles
• Buttered popcorn
• High-fat snack crackers
4. Limit unhealthy fats
Limiting how much saturated and trans fats you eat is an important step to reduce your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of coronary artery disease. A high blood cholesterol level can lead to a buildup of plaques in your arteries, called atherosclerosis, which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
The American Heart Association offers these guidelines for how much fat to include in a heart-healthy diet:
Type of fat Recommendation
Saturated fat No more than 5 to 6% of your total daily calories, or no more than 11 to 13g of saturated fat if you follow a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet
Trans fat Avoid
You can reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet by trimming fat off your meat or choosing lean meats with less than 10 percent fat. You can also add less butter, margarine and shortening when cooking and serving.
You can also use low-fat substitutions when possible for a heart-healthy diet. For example, top your baked potato with low-sodium salsa or low-fat yogurt rather than butter, or use sliced whole fruit or low-sugar fruit spread on your toast instead of margarine.
You may also want to check the food labels of some cookies, cakes, frostings, crackers and chips. Some of these — even those labeled “reduced fat” — may be made with oils containing trans fats. One clue that a food has some trans fat in it is the phrase “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list.
When you do use fats, choose monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil or canola oil. Polyunsaturated fats, found in certain fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, also are good choices for a heart-healthy diet. When used in place of saturated fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may help lower your total blood cholesterol. But moderation is essential. All types of fat are high in calories.
An easy way to add healthy fat (and fiber) to your diet is ground flaxseed. Flaxseeds are small brown seeds that are high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Some studies have found that flaxseeds may help lower cholesterol in some people, but more research is needed. You can grind the seeds in a coffee grinder or food processor and stir a teaspoon of them into yogurt, applesauce or hot cereal.
Fats to choose Fats to limit
• Olive oil
• Canola oil
• Vegetable and nut oils
• Margarine, trans fat free
• Cholesterol-lowering margarine, such as Benecol, Promise Activ or Smart Balance
• Nuts, seeds
• Avocados • Butter
• Bacon fat
• Cream sauce
• Nondairy creamers
• Hydrogenated margarine and shortening
• Cocoa butter, found in chocolate
• Coconut, palm, cottonseed and palm-kernel oils
5. Choose low-fat protein sources
Lean meat, poultry and fish, low-fat dairy products, and eggs are some of your best sources of protein. But be careful to choose lower fat options, such as skim milk rather than whole milk and skinless chicken breasts rather than fried chicken patties.
Fish is another good alternative to high-fat meats. And certain types of fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower blood fats called triglycerides. You’ll find the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring. Other sources are flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil.
Legumes — beans, peas and lentils — also are good sources of protein and contain less fat and no cholesterol, making them good substitutes for meat. Substituting plant protein for animal protein — for example, a soy or bean burger for a hamburger — will reduce your fat and cholesterol intake and increase your fiber intake.
Proteins to choose Proteins to limit or avoid
• Low-fat dairy products, such as skim or low-fat (1%) milk, yogurt and cheese
• Fish, especially fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon
• Skinless poultry
• Soybeans and soy products, such as soy burgers and tofu
• Lean ground meats • Full-fat milk and other dairy products
• Organ meats, such as liver
• Fatty and marbled meats
• Hot dogs and sausages
• Fried or breaded meats
6. Reduce the sodium in your food
Eating a lot of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Reducing sodium is an important part of a heart-healthy diet. The American Heart Association recommends that:
• Healthy adults have no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day (about a teaspoon of salt)
• Most adults ideally have no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day
Although reducing the amount of salt you add to food at the table or while cooking is a good first step, much of the salt you eat comes from canned or processed foods, such as soups, baked goods and frozen dinners. Eating fresh foods and making your own soups and stews can reduce the amount of salt you eat.
If you like the convenience of canned soups and prepared meals, look for ones with reduced sodium. Be wary of foods that claim to be lower in sodium because they are seasoned with sea salt instead of regular table salt — sea salt has the same nutritional value as regular salt.
Another way to reduce the amount of salt you eat is to choose your condiments carefully. Many condiments are available in reduced-sodium versions, and salt substitutes can add flavor to your food with less sodium.
Low-salt items to choose High-salt items to limit or avoid
• Herbs and spices
• Salt-free seasoning blends
• Reduced-salt canned soups or prepared meals
• Reduced-salt versions of condiments, such as reduced-salt soy sauce and reduced-salt ketchup • Table salt
• Canned soups and prepared foods, such as frozen dinners
• Tomato juice
• Condiments such as ketchup, mayonnaise and soy sauce
• Restaurant meals
7. Plan ahead: Create daily menus
You know what foods to feature in your heart-healthy diet and which ones to limit. Now it’s time to put your plans into action.
Create daily menus using the six strategies listed above. When selecting foods for each meal and snack, emphasize vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Choose lean protein sources and healthy fats, and limit salty foods. Watch your portion sizes and add variety to your menu choices.
For example, if you have grilled salmon one evening, try a black-bean burger the next night. This helps ensure that you’ll get all of the nutrients your body needs. Variety also makes your meals and snacks more interesting.
8. Allow yourself an occasional treat
Allow yourself an indulgence every now and then. A candy bar or handful of potato chips won’t derail your heart-healthy diet. But don’t let it turn into an excuse for giving up on your healthy-eating plan. If overindulgence is the exception, rather than the rule, you’ll balance things out over the long term. What’s important is that you eat healthy foods most of the time.
Incorporate these eight tips into your life, and you’ll find that heart-healthy eating is both doable and enjoyable. With planning and a few simple substitutions, you can eat with your heart in mind.