Heart-healthy diets are food and nutrition choices you make that improve overall health to benefit your heart and prevent cardiovascularly (heart and blood vessel) diseases.
It means choosing a variety of nutritious foods, maintaining weight, and limiting salt, sugar, and some fats that can increase the chance of heart disease.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, but it is also one of the most preventable causes.
Although some heart disease risks can be inherited or present at birth, most risks can be controlled with proper diet and exercise.
For instance, coronary artery disease (CAD) is the narrowing of arteries caused by a buildup of plaque; plaque comes largely from a diet high in fat and cholesterol.
WHY EAT A HEART-HEALTHY DIET?
Although heart disease tends to strike as people reach their forties, fifties, and older, most of the factors that cause cardiovascular disease slowly accumulate over time.
For example, being overweight or obese can lead to changes in how your body stores fat and how much cholesterol and other substances (lipids) circulate in your blood.
Weight also can increase the chance of high blood pressure, which makes your heart work harder than it should.
High blood pressure also can be managed with the help of diet changes, such as limiting salt and losing weight.
BEST FOOD CHOICES FOR HEART HEALTH DIET
Eating a diversity of foods to get the nutrients you need can help heart health.
But some foods are better than others; the following are foods that you should emphasize in a heart-healthy diet:
- Whole grains such as wheat, oatmeal, and brown rice
- A variety of fruits and vegetables
- Skinless fish and poultry
- Low-fat dairy products
- Nuts and legumes (lentils, beans, soybeans)
- Plant-based, nontropical oils (such as canola, oil, olive oil, and peanut oil)
FOODS TO LIMIT FOR HEART HEALTH DIET
For a heart-healthy diet, you can eat just enough fat in meals to feel full but should limit the amount and certain types of fats.
Saturated and trans fats are the worst for heart health and are present in many prepared and fried foods.
Learning to check labels can help you determine which foods you eat are high in these fats. You also can choose to prepare meats and vegetables in ways other than frying.
Animal fats such as bacon, cheese, eggs, and whole milk contain higher amounts of cholesterol and should be eaten in moderation.
Sodium (salt) comes in salt we add to our plates, but high amounts of sodium can be hidden in prepared foods such as cold cuts.
Added sugars also are common, and you should limit sugar. Sugar in foods is called many names, such as fructose and sucrose.
Heart-healthy diets include watching beverage intake, as well. Choosing fresh fruit over sugar-added juice or canned fruit is healthier.
Sodas are a contributor to too much sugar in the diet. Drinking too much alcohol (more than one drink per day for adult women and one to two for adult men) contributes to weight gain, higher levels of some fats in the blood, and even raises blood pressure.
Fast foods typically are among the worst for heart health. They contain added sugars and salts for flavor and pack high calorie and fat content.
Many consumer diet plans might claim to be heart-healthy. Still, it is best to follow your doctor’s advice, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Heart Association, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
These guidelines recommend moderation, limiting unhealthy foods, or replacing them with more heart-healthy choices instead of completely restricting certain types of food.
The Mediterranean Diet is a popular example that is more a way of eating than a restrictive diet.
It emphasizes heart-healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, fishes, high-fiber foods like whole grains, and some olive oil.
The Mediterranean Diet is similar to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015 to 2020 edition.
The guidelines recommend establishing lifelong healthy eating patterns by choosing vegetables from dark green, red and orange, starchy, and legume categories; eating whole fruits; making half of the grains whole grains; and choosing fat-free or low-fat dairy foods.
Eating various lean proteins, especially seafood, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, and soy products, is recommended.
The guidelines do not avoid sugars, saturated fats, and sodium altogether but limit them.
(DASH) Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet suggests a balanced eating plan for people who have or at risk for high blood pressure.
The plan also emphasizes fruits and vegetables, nonfat dairy, and foods rich in whole grains and proteins while limiting sodium.
OTHER WAYS TO IMPROVE HEART HEALTH
Regular physical activity is important to burn calories and keep the heart and lungs working as they should.
If you are gaining weight, the best approach is to work more activity into your schedule or make it more intense (such as running instead of walking if you have no physical limitations).
It is recommended that people have at least 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes during vigorous activity for weight control and cardiovascular fitness.
It is also important to avoid smoking or any use of tobacco.
In general, the best approach to heart health involves moderation, balance, and activity.
It is important to balance the calories you eat with those you burn through activity and to choose foods that pack more nutrition into their calories.
Setting patterns early in the life of enjoying most foods, but some only occasionally or in small amounts, helps avoid the pain of restricting foods to the diet and lose weight.
“The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations.” American Heart Association. August 15, 2017. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/aha-diet-and-lifestyle-recommendations (accessed February 13, 2020).
“Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015 to 2020.” Health.gov. https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf (accessed February 13, 2020).
“Eat Smart for a Healthy Heart.” CardioSmart. March 2019. https://www.cardiosmart.org/nutrition (accessed February 13, 2020).
“Love Your Heart, Love Your Food.” EatRight.org. November 2019. https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/heart-and-cardiovascular-health/love-your-heart-love-your-food (accessed February 13, 2020).
American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120 South Riverside Plaza, Suite 2190, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (800) 877-1600, (312) 899-0040, https://www.eatright.org.
American Heart Association, 7272 Greenville Ave., Dallas, TX, 75231, (800) 242-8721, https://www.heart.org/en.
USDA Food and Nutrition Center, 10301 Baltimore Avenue, Beltsville, MD, 20705, (301) 504-5755, Fax: (301) 504-7042, https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic .