You only get one heart, and it’s so important that you take good care of it. Aside from regular exercise and annual checkups, the single best way to care for your cardiac health is by eating a heart healthy diet. Thankfully, it’s not complicated and most likely includes many of your favorite foods. A heart healthy diet focuses on reducing your sodium and saturated fat intake and keeping an eye on portion sizes. In this post, I’ll provide the details on eating for a lifetime of excellent cardiovascular health.
- Six Pillars of a Heart-Healthy Diet
- Saturated vs Unsaturated Fat
- Reduce Your Daily Sodium Intake
- Practice Portion Control
- The Beat Goes On
Six Pillars of a Heart-Healthy Diet
For a happy, healthy heart, the American Heart Association recommends that you prioritize the following food groups:
- Colorful Veggies
- Whole Grains
- Lean Protein
- Legumes, Nuts, and Seeds
- Low-Fat and No-Fat Dairy Products
Be sure you’re eating several servings of vegetables (fresh, frozen, or canned) every day. Toss spinach and peppers into your breakfast eggs, have a green salad for lunch, and eat sides like broccoli and asparagus at dinnertime. Vegetable juice is also a great source of vitamins, but be sure it’s the kind without added salt.
Though low-carb diets are popular, you don’t have to give up bread, pasta, or cereal to be heart healthy. Choose high-fiber, whole-grain varieties when you’re stocking up on sandwiches and crackers, and eat brown rice instead of white. Brown rice pasta is a good substitute for traditional noodles.
When you’re craving something sweet, reach for whole fruit: apples, pears, peaches, berries, bananas—you name it. Fresh fruit is usually the tastiest, but frozen fruit can be a good choice too. If you eat canned fruit, make sure it’s unsweetened, with no syrup added. The same is true if you drink fruit juice: Make sure it’s 100% juice, with no added sugar. (Bear in mind that juice usually doesn’t contain all the nutrients of whole fruit.)
Protein helps you to stay full, build muscle, and lose unwanted pounds. Get yours from leaner sources like poultry (skinless), tofu, and fish. Low-mercury fish like salmon and tilapia are a good source of protein and are rich in beneficial omega-3s.
Another great way to get your lean protein is in egg-based meals. But wait, are eggs healthy? Yes, don’t shy away from your morning omelette because of the egg cholesterol myth floating around. While eggs do contain cholesterol, eating them won’t raise yours in the way other high-cholesterol foods do. Just remember to use oil or butter in moderation when preparing them.
Legumes, Nuts, and Seeds
Need some heart healthy snack ideas? Go nuts—literally! A handful of almonds, peanuts, or cashews make a great afternoon snack, and they’re easy to toss into salads and cereals. Add lentils and beans, like black or white beans, to your soups, or try hummus and other bean dips. And, of course, peanut or almond butter with no sugar added is a delicious staple.
Low-Fat and No-Fat Dairy Products
Milk and other dairy products contain calcium, potassium, and vitamin D to keep you strong and healthy. They’re also good sources of protein. Choose skim or 1% milk and low-fat cheeses, like part-skim mozzarella and fat-free cottage cheese. If you like yogurt, buy the kind with no sugar added, and sweeten it yourself with fresh fruit and chopped nuts.
Saturated vs Unsaturated Fat
Contrary to popular belief, fat is not the enemy, and many heart-healthy foods contain it. As a matter of fact, your body needs a certain amount of fat in order to function properly. It’s the type of fat you consume that matters when it comes to eating well. Unsaturated fats (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) are good for your heart when eaten in moderation. You’ll find a high monounsaturated fat content in some liquid plant oils (like olive and sesame oil), peanuts, and tree nuts. Foods that are high in polyunsaturated fats include other oils (like sunflower and corn oil), walnuts, tofu, and some fish.
Saturated fat, on the other hand, is not as good for you and can raise your cholesterol level. You’ll find this kind in fatty cuts of beef, milk, butter, cheese, and palm and coconut oils. You don’t need to avoid it entirely, but the American Heart Association recommends you get only 5-6% of your daily calorie intake from saturated fat. So yes, you can still butter your toast and enjoy cheese pizza—just read your nutrition labels and use good judgment.
Reduce Your Daily Sodium Intake
Another part of taking good care of your ticker is reducing the amount of sodium (or salt) in your diet. Much like fat, sodium isn’t the enemy—a moderate amount is necessary for your body to function normally. It’s when you overdo it that you run into trouble, and trouble, in this case, can mean high blood pressure. Because of the strong link between hypertension and cardiovascular disease, it’s important to be conscious of how much salt you consume. Here are some easy ways to reduce the amount of sodium in your diet:
- Choose fresh over processed whenever you’re able. Sodium is a common preservative.
- Make sure any canned foods and juices you purchase have no salt added or are, at the very least, labeled “low-sodium.”
- Enjoy salty foods like cold cuts, pizza, chips, and crackers as treats, rather than dietary staples.
- Don’t add table salt to your cooking or your plate, or use just one tiny pinch.
- Cook at home more frequently than you order takeout or dine out. Restaurant food is notoriously salty.
Practice Portion Control
While we’re talking about how to eat healthy, let’s cover the concept of portion size. A heart-healthy diet is about more than what you eat; it’s also about how much you eat. It’s possible, for example, to prepare nothing but the most nutritious foods and still overdo it if you go back for seconds and thirds. Similarly, you can enjoy treats like burgers, brownies, and ice cream without making your cardiologist cringe. It’s all about portion control.
Proper portioning looks different for each person based on their age, sex, body size, health conditions, and specific dietary needs. You can determine the best portion sizes for you at ChooseMyPlate. There’s even an app you can use when you’re grocery shopping or dining out. (Hint: taking home half of your restaurant entree for the next day is almost always a good plan. Restaurant portions are enormous!)
The Beat Goes On
Have you been eating in a way that’s less than ideal for your cardiovascular health? Take heart! Making some simple changes will ensure you’ll be in great shape for years to come.