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Tips for building a nutritious, heart-healthy diet

March 14, 2022

Your heart spends every second of the day working hard for your body, and it’s up to you to treat it right. When it comes to heart health, the old adage of “food as medicine” rings true — people who follow a heart-healthy diet have a 31% lower risk of heart disease. You’ll also be supporting your whole health in the process. A heart-healthy diet helps the body by:

  • Reducing cholesterol: When “bad” cholesterol is too high, it can cause a plaque buildup in the arteries, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. 
  • Lowering blood pressure: High blood pressure damages the arteries over time by making them less elastic, which makes it harder for blood and oxygen to flow to the heart.1   
  • Fueling it with powerful nutrients: Heart-healthy diets are heavy on nutrient-rich foods like whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, many of which are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Keeping weight in check: Being overweight or obese is linked to a number of factors that increase the risk of coronary artery disease, heart failure, and stroke, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
 

Pillars of a heart-healthy diet

You can keep your heart healthy by following a few simple but important guidelines. If you want a structured diet, look to the Mediterranean diet, a vegetarian diet, and the DASH diet. These are the best diets for heart health, according to research from the Mayo Clinic, and incorporate many or all of the heart health tips below.

Eat frequent, smaller meals.

If you skip meals, you might end up overeating later. Instead of one or two large meals a day, try eating smaller, frequent meals and snacks. It helps control your metabolism and blood sugar, and more meals also means a bigger variety of nutrients from different foods throughout the day.

Drink alcohol in moderation.

Drinking too much alcohol increases the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, liver disease, and many other health problems. Science has also shown that drinking, in combination with high cholesterol, can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. Moderation is key — if you do drink, don’t exceed the recommended daily limits, and always talk to your doctor if you have any health concerns.

Limit added sugars.

The average adult gets about 17 teaspoons of a sugar a day — almost double the daily limit for men and triple the limit for women.  Sugar-heavy foods and drinks can cause high blood pressure and cholesterol and are often high in calories, which can lead to weight gain. Sugary drinks are the biggest culprits of added sugars in the American diet, so choose water instead. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also good, nutrient-dense sources of natural sugars.

Fill up on fiber.

A fiber-rich diet is full of health benefits: Fiber keeps you full longer, which can help control weight and can keep cholesterol and blood sugar in check. Oats, beans, lentils, fruits, cottage cheese, and whole grain options like whole wheat spaghetti or whole wheat bread are all excellent sources of fiber, although there are plenty of others, too.

Go for whole grains.

Aside from being great sources of fiber, whole grains provide more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than refined carbohydrate options like white bread, many breakfast cereals, and most pastas. Eating an extra one or two servings of whole grains a day can lower the risk of heart disease by up to 20%.

Choose healthy fat sources.

Red meat, fried food, and high-fat dairy products are usually high in cholesterol and saturated and trans fats, which can cause weight gain and increase the risk of heart disease. Instead, choose healthier sources of fat:

  • Proteins: Salmon, chicken, flax seed, tofu, nuts, legumes
  • Dairy: Skim milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and reduced fat cheeses, which are good for blood pressure and heart and bone health
  • Oils: Olive, peanut, and canola oils, which favor unsaturated fats

The American Heart Association recommends only about a teaspoon of salt a day. Sodium is in salt, and too much sodium can increase your blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Check nutrition labels — excess sodium is lurking in many processed foods such as deli meats, canned soups, salad dressings, and frozen meals. Look for items advertised as reduced salt, like reduced salt ketchup and soy sauce. You can also cook your own food with salt-free seasoning blends and eat meals heavy on fresh fruits and veggies, which are naturally low in sodium.

Focus on fruits and veggies.

Fruits and veggies are low in sodium, but that's not their only benefit: They're also low in calories, high in fiber, rich in minerals and nutrients, and can lower cholesterol. Antioxidant-rich foods like leafy greens, blueberries, and citrus all are associated with a lower risk for heart problems.

 

Always talk to your doctor before starting any kind of diet.

Sources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: cdc.gov
American Heart Association: heart.org
Cleveland Clinic: my.clevelandclinic.org