Looking to prevent heart disease and improve your cardiovascular health? Learn which foods are healthiest for your heart.
What is a heart-healthy diet?
Heart disease is the leading killer of men and women—and claims more lives than all forms of cancer combined. Being diagnosed with cardiovascular disease can also take an emotional toll, affecting your mood, outlook, and quality of life. While weight control and regular exercise are critical for keeping your heart in shape, the food you eat can matter just as much. In fact, along with other healthy lifestyle choices, a heart-healthy diet may reduce your risk of heart disease or stroke by 80%.
No single food can make you magically healthy, so your overall dietary pattern is more important than specific foods. Instead of fried, processed food, packaged meals, and sugary snacks, a heart-healthy diet is built around “real,” natural food—fresh from the ground, ocean, or farm.
Whether you’re looking to improve your cardiovascular health, have already been diagnosed with heart disease, or have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, these heart-healthy diet tips can help you better manage these conditions and lower your risk of a heart attack.
Three keys to a heart-healthy diet
1. Be smart about fats
If you are concerned about your heart health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacing unhealthy fats with good fats. Some of the most important improvements you can make to your diet are to:
Cut out trans fats. As well as raising your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol level, which can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke, trans fat also lowers your levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol, which can put you at increased cardiovascular risk. Trans fats are found in foods such as commercially-baked goods, fried food, and anything with “partially hydrogenated” oil in the ingredients, even if it claims to be “trans fat-free.”
Limit saturated fats. Saturated fats are mainly found in tropical oils, dairy, and red meat and should be limited to no more than 10% of your daily calorie intake. Enjoy dairy in moderation and vary the protein sources in your diet, opting for fish, skinless chicken, eggs, and vegetarian sources of protein where you can.
Eat more healthy fats. Eating foods rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat can improve blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart disease. Eat omega 3 fatty acids every day, from fatty fish such as salmon, trout, or herring, or from flaxseed, kale, spinach, or walnuts. Other sources of healthy fats include olive oil, avocados, nuts, and nut butters.
2. Don’t replace fat with sugar or refined carbs
When cutting back on heart-risky foods, such unhealthy fats, it’s important to replace them with healthy alternatives. Replacing processed meats with fish or chicken, for example, can make a positive difference to your health. But switching animal fats for refined carbohydrates, though—such as replacing your breakfast bacon with a donut or sugary cereal—won’t do anything to lower your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Your body doesn’t need any added sugar—it gets all it needs from the sugar that naturally occurs in food. Sugary food and refined carbs just add up to a lot of empty calories that are as bad for your heart as they are for your waistline.
Instead of sugary soft drinks, white bread, pasta and processed foods like pizza, opt for unrefined whole grains like whole wheat or multigrain bread, brown rice, barley, quinoa, bran cereal, oatmeal, and non-starchy vegetables.
3. Focus on high-fiber food
A diet high in fiber can lower “bad” cholesterol and provide nutrients that help protect against heart disease. As an added bonus, it may also help you to lose weight. Since fiber stays in the stomach longer than other foods, the feeling of fullness will stay with you much longer, helping you eat less. Fiber also moves fat through your digestive system quicker so less of it is absorbed. And when you fill up on fiber, you’ll also have more energy for exercising.