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Heart-Healthy Diet: Good Food and Common Sense Guidelines

Salad in a bowl

If you're looking for ways to keep your heart healthy, an easy way to start is by choosing foods that prevent heart disease. A nutritious diet can help you maintain a healthy weight as well as control your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

The good news is that there are lots of tasty foods that help fight heart disease. Some may be obvious to you, such as vegetables and fruits, but others might surprise you, like beans, nuts and low-fat dairy products.

Here are eight ways to put together a heart-healthy diet.

1. Fill your plate with vegetables and fruits

Vegetables and fruits are low-calorie and chock-full of essential nutrients. They also supply plenty of heart-healthy fiber, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic. Another good thing about fruits and vegetables is that by filling up on these low-calorie foods, you’re less likely to have room for high-calorie dishes with heart-damaging fats.

You can eat fruits and vegetables raw or cooked. They’re also nutritious whether fresh or frozen. If canned, check the label to be sure the food is low-sodium and, for fruit in particular, not packed in syrup.

To keep your diet interesting and to get a variety of nutrients, sample all kinds of different fruits and vegetables. Rely on their natural taste rather than adding a lot of salt, sugar or high-calorie sauces to them, advises the American Heart Association.

The Cleveland Clinic recommends loading up on green veggies like:

  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Swiss chard
  • Collard/mustard greens
  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Asparagus

Also incorporate as many colors of fruits and vegetables as you can in your diet. Think orange carrots, yellow peppers, purple eggplant and red tomatoes.

All kinds of berries, melons and citrus fruits are packed with important nutrients and fiber. To get started, top yogurt or cereal with strawberries, raspberries or blackberries, the Cleveland Clinic suggests.

2. Know that carbs can be ok

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap, but not all carbs are alike. In general, you want to stay away from processed "white" carbs. White bread, pasta, rice, muffins, doughnuts, biscuits, crackers, egg noodles, cakes and pies are foods you want to limit, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Whole-grain carbohydrates, on the other hand, help keep blood pressure under control, improving heart health. Try starting your day with oatmeal or a high-fiber cereal — one with 5 grams or more of fiber per serving. Whole-grain bread (made with 100 percent whole wheat or whole grain) is also a good choice. Choose brown rice over white, and whole-grain pasta instead of white pasta, the experts at Mayo Clinic suggest.

As with fruits and vegetables, variety is helpful. Give a new type of whole grain a shot — farro, quinoa, buckwheat (kasha) or barley, anyone?

3. Opt for healthier proteins

The American Heart Association recommends making nuts and legumes a part of your diet. Legumes include beans (garbanzo, pinto, kidney and black, navy, red and white beans), dried yellow and green peas, and lentils in many colors. Do keep an eye on the calories. Portion size is important for calorie-dense nuts in particular, and also resist preparing beans in ways that add a lot of fat (and its calories).

The Cleveland Clinic notes that a handful of healthy nuts like walnuts or almonds can be a satisfying way to quash hunger. It also recommends including seeds in your diet, such as chia or flaxseed, to get additional protein and fiber.

Fish is another food that prevents heart disease. The American Heart Association suggests eating fish at least twice a week. Fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids are good choices. Some examples of these fatty fish include:

  • Salmon
  • Trout
  • Tuna
  • Mackerel
  • Herring

4. Keep meat and dairy lean

Stick with lean meats, poultry (without skin), fish and eggs, along with low-fat or no-fat dairy products. These foods are important sources of protein, magnesium and calcium, according to the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

Stick with relatively small serving sizes — a cup of milk or 1 ounce of meat or fish is considered a serving size. NHLBI recommends limiting dairy products to two or three servings daily and keeping meat or fish to six or fewer servings a day for those eating 2,000 calories a day.

Mayo Clinic experts suggest trimming any visible fat from your meat. Also, look for cuts that contain less than 10 percent fat (it will often state this on the packaging, particularly for ground beef).

5. Look for low-sodium

Limiting sodium is a key step in reducing heart disease risk. Excess sodium contributes to high blood pressure, and high blood pressure increases the risk for heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. Limit sodium to no more than 2,300 milligrams daily (about 1 teaspoon). Even better, aim for 1,500 mg or less each day.

Cutting back on sodium isn't as easy as it sounds, though. Most of the sodium in your diet doesn't come from the salt shaker, but rather from processed foods. Store-bought soups, packaged breads and other baked goods and frozen dinners all have added sodium. Look for low-sodium versions of these foods, or make your own without the salt at home.

Foods with low or no salt don't have to be bland. Experiment with spices and salt-free seasoning blends to add more flavor to your food. Look for reduced sodium versions of your favorite condiments, too.

6. Substitute healthier fats

No matter what type of fat you eat, it's important to pay attention to portion sizes. Fats are high in calories, even healthy fats.

When you do choose fats, opt for fats that are monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. If you swap these fats for saturated fats, you may lower your overall cholesterol, according to the Mayo Clinic. For example, instead of putting butter on your toast, substitute some mashed avocado. Here's a list of fats that are better for you:

  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Nut oils
  • Vegetable oils
  • Cholesterol-lowering margarine (Benecol, Promise Activ, Smart Balance)

Limit your use of butter, lard, other types of animal fat, hydrogenated margarine and oils made from coconut, palm, cottonseed and palm-kernel, the Mayo Clinic says.

7. Have a sweet treat

Lots of foods can be incorporated into a heart-healthy diet, even chocolate. But opt for rich dark chocolate — the higher the amount of cocoa, the better. There's less sugar and more fiber in chocolate with a higher cocoa content, the Cleveland Clinic says. Look for at least 70 percent cocoa on the label.

8. Pay attention to portions

Even healthy foods can be a problem if your portions are too large. Nutrition labels usually give information based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. But, depending on your size and activity level, you may need a different amount of calories. Check with your doctor or a dietitian to learn how much you actually need to eat each day.

Heart health beyond your diet

Unhealthy eating isn't the sole cause of heart disease. To keep your heart healthy, you need to look at other lifestyle factors, too.

If you're a smoker, the most important thing you can do to improve your health is to quit.

You also need regular exercise to keep your heart in shape. Government guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. If you can bump up your intensity level to vigorous exercise, aim for at least 75 minutes a week. Try to spread your activity throughout the week. And remember that even short bursts of activity can help improve your heart health, according to the American Heart Association.

Article references

  1. American Heart Association. "The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations." 
  2. Mayo Clinic. “Heart Healthy Diet.”
  3. Cleveland Clinic. “12 Heart-healthy Foods to Work into Your Diet.”
  4. U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. "Dash Eating Plan." 
  5. JAMA. "Association Between Dietary Factors and Mortality From Heart Disease, Stroke, and Type 2 Diabetes in the United States."