What Is a Heart-Healthy Diet?
Heart disease encompasses numerous conditions of the heart and blood vessels, many of which are related to atherosclerosis, or the process in which plaque builds up, hardens, and narrows the arteries. Atherosclerosis may cause blood clots, subsequently increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. But consuming a heart-healthy diet, also used interchangeably with a cardiovascular diet, can lower the risk of heart disease or stop or reverse it. A diet for heart disease incorporates more wholesome foods, including those rich in fiber and healthy fats, along with limiting those laden in refined flour, sugar, sodium, saturated and trans fats that is described in greater detail right below.
10 Tips to Eating a Heart Healthy Diet
1. Swap Refined Grains for Whole Grains
Choosing whole grains over refined grains is a simple tip to eat for the heart. Unlike whole grains, refined grains have undergone heavy processing that generally removes valuable B vitamins, iron, and dietary fiber, nutrients that have shown to be cardioprotective. Nonetheless, the B vitamins folate and vitamins B-6 and B-12 lower the risk of heart disease while iron is important for bringing oxygen-rich blood to the heart. To increase whole grain intake, eat more whole wheat pastas and breads, oats, corn and popcorn, brown and wild rice, and quinoa and consume less products prepared with refined flour, including white breads and pastries.
2. Increase Colorful Fruits and Veggies
Colorful fruits and veggies are extremely rich in a wide variety of heart-healthy nutrients, including fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals. For instance, the magnesium found in dark leafy greens has been shown to lower the risk of stroke, while potassium notoriously sourced from bananas plays an integral role in naturally improving blood pressure. As a general guideline, color at least half of the meal plate with non-starchy veggies and consume at least five servings of produce daily.
3. Rethink Fat
Whereas the fear of fat was merely established based on worry for increasing heart disease risk, the concern is not necessarily on fat as a whole, but its variable forms. Reduce the intake of saturated and trans fats, especially in prepackaged, processed foods and go for healthier fat sources, particularly monounsaturated (MUFAs) polyunsaturated (PUFAs) and omega-3 fatty acids, shown to support heart health. Ultimately, choose olive oil, canola oil, vegetable and nut oils, avocados, and nuts and seeds and limit fried foods, cured meats, butter and lard, and cream sauces. You can also naturally decrease saturated fat intake by consuming lean animal proteins such as chicken, turkey, sirloin, and over processed and/or red meats.
4. Go Fish
Speaking of fat… Salmon, trout, tuna, herring, and mackerel are significant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat countlessly shown to support heart health. Try to go eat fish at least twice each week, particularly by including oily assortments.
5. Put the Emphasis On Plants
Though fruits and veggies are critical in a heart healthy diet, there are numerous plant-based sources that bare attention. For instance, legumes are superior meat alternatives (and significant suppliers of fiber), including beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, and peanuts. And if not a big fish eater, nuts and seeds also provide omega-3 fatty acids. All nuts and seeds are welcomed, including almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, and flaxseeds. And while meat products can and do, putting the emphasis on a plant-based diet can ensure adequate nutrients and protect against heart disease.
6. Limit Sugar
While high-fat and cholesterol diets were once thought to be the sole culprit of heart disease, it is now well-known sugar is a significant instigator. In fact, high-sugar diets can increase cardiovascular disease by lowering HDL (the "good") cholesterol and increasing triglyceride levels and the American Heart Association encourages men and women to limit daily added sugar content to more than 38 and 25 grams, respectively. Limit the obvious sugary desserts and beverages, along with being cautious of these four ways food companies hide sugar contents. The American Heart Association encourages men and women to limit daily added sugar content to more than 38 and 25 grams, respectively.
7. Moderate Sodium Intake
While sodium is a critical mineral and electrolyte for regulating fluid balance within the body, too much of it can increase blood pressure and raise the risk of heart attack and stroke. The general recommendation of sodium intake is 2,400 milligrams (mg) per day and can be moderated by ridding the salt shaker from the dinner table and while cooking, taking advantage of the Nutrition Facts label, limiting processed and packaged products, and incorporating more wholesome foods.
8. Flavor Foods with Herbs
Worried of sacrificing flavor without the use of salt? Simultaneously reduce salt intake and enrich the flavor of your foods by spicing it up in the kitchen!
9. Balance the Diet
Ultimately, meals and snacks should be balanced with whole grains, fresh produce, protein sources, and "healthy" fats. The diet should also include variety from each food groups, including by coloring the plate with various veggies and alternating between lean animal and plant-based proteins.
10. Keep Portions in Check
There is no denying portions have grown in size, which places the risk of overeating and increasing total daily calories intake. Keep portions in check by halving or splitting dinner entrees at restaurants, bulking meals with veggies, and practicing mindful eating techniques.