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Last updated October 25, 2019. 6 minute read

Heart-healthy diet: this is what that means

Healthy eating is incredibly important in preventing and treating heart disease. Researchers have pinpointed a variety of heart-healthy foods that seem to have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system. And there are other simple changes you can make in your approach to food that can lower your risk.

Self Written by Michael Martin
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

The campaign to raise heart-health awareness is going about as well as the War on Drugs—that is to say, not so much. This year, about 735,000 Americans will have a heart attack, one every 40 seconds (CDC, 2019). And 121 million Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease (AHA, 2019).

Diet is a major factor. Healthy eating is incredibly important in preventing and treating heart disease. But it’s easy to do: Researchers have pinpointed a variety of heart-healthy foods that seem to have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system. And there are other simple changes you can make in your approach to food that can lower your risk. Read on to see what they are.

Vitals

  • To lower your risk of heart disease, follow a heart-healthy diet.
  • A diet low in sodium and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is recommended for heart health.
  • Avoid unhealthy fats and choose “good fats” that are heart-protective.
  • Eating too much added sugar and drinking alcohol in excess can damage the heart.

Tips for a heart-healthy diet

Limit serving sizes

Portion sizes have grown exponentially over the years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), restaurant portions are four times bigger than they were in the 1950s. And we’ve taken that home with us—the average American eats 3,200 calories a day, while experts recommend 2,000.

This could be why: According to dietary guidelines, one standard serving of a high-protein food like meat or chicken is 3 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand. A serving of pasta is 1 cup. One serving of cheese is the size of three to four dice. When’s the last time your dinner looked like that?

Being mindful of portion sizes overall, but particularly when it comes to foods high in calories or saturated fat (like red meat), is key to maintaining a healthy weight and heart.

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Reduce sodium intake

A diet high in salt raises your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. And if you’re like most Americans, you’re consuming too much sodium. The American Heart Association recommends 2,300mg (about one teaspoon of salt). Most Americans consume 3,400mg daily (FDA, 2016). Put down the salt shaker, and check Nutrition Facts labels for the sodium levels of products you buy. Eat fast food sparingly; it tends to be high in sodium.

Eat fresh fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, and natural phytochemicals that can protect your heart. The AHA recommends that you fill half your plate with vegetables and fruit at every meal, and aim to eat 4 to 5 servings a day. But you might want to shoot for 10: According to a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, eating ten servings of fruits and vegetables daily could lower your risk of heart disease by 28% and your chances of premature death by 31% (Aune, 2017). 

The fruits and veg that seemed to offer the greatest benefits: Apples, pears, oranges, and other citrus fruits, green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower), and green and yellow vegetables (such as green beans, carrots, and peppers).

Eat whole grains

Whole grains can be good for cardiovascular health because they’re high in dietary fiber, which seems to help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and improve blood vessel function (Harvard Health Publishing, 2017). 

Good sources include quinoa, oats, brown rice, buckwheat, and barley. When buying bread, make sure it’s true whole grain. Some breads labeled “whole wheat” are just white bread in disguise—they can contain sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

Avoid unhealthy fats

Avoid saturated and trans fats (trans fats should already be mostly gone from foods by now, as they have been banned). These types of fats raise blood cholesterol, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fats are found in red meat, chicken with skin, cheese, butter, and whole-milk or 2% dairy products.

Focus on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats can actually benefit your heart: Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats lower blood cholesterol, and omega-3s seem to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. These good fats are found in fish, avocados, olive oil or canola oil, flaxseed, nuts, and seeds.

Choose low-fat dairy products and protein

To be heart-healthy, limit your consumption of red meat. Choose low-fat protein such as skinless chicken and fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and orange roughy. Fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce triglycerides and lowers your heart disease risk. It’s so good for your heart that the AHA recommends eating two servings of fish a week in place of meat. 

Opt for low-fat milk and yogurt, too. Low-fat dairy products can be a good source of lean protein, particularly Greek yogurt and cottage cheese.

Limit foods/beverages with added sugar

Whether you drink juice, soda, or other sugar-sweetened beverages, the calories can add up fast. In fact, 1 in 4 Americans drink 200 calories a day in sugary drinks (Ogden, 2011).

That can be dangerous. One study in the journal Circulation found that drinking sugary drinks correlated to an increased risk of death, particularly from heart disease (Malik, 2019).

Be alert to added sugar in foods, too. Manufacturers sneak sugar into all kinds of unlikely products, like low-fat fruit yogurt, instant oatmeal, cereals, and whole-wheat bread. 

The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than nine teaspoons (36 grams, or 150 calories), and women have no more than six teaspoons (100 calories) of added sugar daily. Unfortunately, the average American eats about 15 teaspoons a day. 

Check Nutrition Facts labels for added sugar. That’ll be easier to do soon—food manufacturers have been required to list added sugar on a separate line on the label starting in 2020. Every 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon.

Drink alcohol in moderation

You know that alcohol can wreak havoc on your liver, but it weakens the heart too. Excessive drinking can increase blood pressure and raise blood triglycerides, which can increase your risk of heart disease.

The best course is moderate drinking, which the AHA defines as no more than two drinks daily for men and one drink a day for women.

Studies show that moderate drinking can be good for heart health because it raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol. (Although the evidence isn’t strong enough to recommend people start drinking if they don’t already.)

Don’t eat processed foods

Heart-healthy eating means avoiding processed food like your life depends on it. Two studies published in the journal BMJ found that people who eat “highly processed” food have a higher risk of heart disease and an increased risk of early death (Srour, 2019). The researchers defined ultra-processed foods as “sausages, mayonnaise, potato chips, pizza, cookies, chocolates and candies, artificially sweetened beverages, and whiskey, gin, and rum.”

You’re better off limiting your consumption of all processed foods. Food manufacturers love to pack them with fat, added sugar, sodium, and tons of chemicals that do things like create flavor and texture. Opt for whole foods whenever possible.

Potential heart-healthy diets to follow

DASH diet

The DASH diet (for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is an eating plan designed to lower blood pressure or keep it in a healthy range. It’s a low-sodium eating plan that’s a variation on the Mediterranean Diet—it includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, and heart-healthy fats. However, many find that sticking to a strict low sodium diet is very difficult.

Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional foods of the regions near the Mediterranean Sea, created when researchers discovered that people in Greece and Italy had better cardiovascular health than people in the U.S. It focuses on plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and nuts. Heart-healthy fats like olive oil are emphasized, poultry and fatty fish like salmon are the typical main courses, and the consumption of red meat is discouraged. Moderate amounts of red wine are included too.