We are often encouraged to maintain a heart healthy diet to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and regulate blood pressure, but what does this really look like? Regularly consuming a variety of different foods from each food group can be a great start. It’s recommended to focus on consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, skinless poultry, fish, nuts and legumes. Focusing on these as main meal components may help control cholesterol and blood pressure.
Components of a Heart Healthy Diet
Not all fat is bad fat. Unsaturated fatty acids have cholesterol lowering effects and can reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke. Unsaturated fatty acids, like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, are found in fish, avocados, peanut butter, nuts and seeds, and plant-based liquid oils including olive oil, soybean oil, canola oil and sesame oil.
Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to reduce risk of heart disease and stroke. It’s recommended by the American Heart Association to consume at least two servings of fish per week. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines and albacore tuna. Vegetarian sources of omega-3s can be found in flax seeds and chia seeds. If you’re finding you don’t consume these omega-3 sources often, an omega-3 supplement could be for you.
Whole grains are an important part of a heart healthy diet because they contain dietary fiber. Fiber helps reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes, while improving blood cholesterol levels. Fiber can be found in whole grains like whole-grain and whole-wheat breads, tortillas and crackers, as well as in foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes and beans. The recommendation for fiber intake is 25 grams per day. You can increase your fiber intake by switching from white breads to whole grain breads, choosing whole grain crackers or tortillas, and adding beans to meals.
Healthy Fat Sources – Omega 3s and Unsaturated Fats
- Albacore tuna
- Olive oil
- Nut butters
- Kidney beans
What should I avoid?
Limiting saturated fat and trans fat in your diet can not only reduce your risk of heart disease, but also help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Aim to consume no more than 13g of saturated fat per day. Saturated fat content is higher in fatty meats like lamb, pork and fatty beef. Butter, cheese, whole-fat dairy products and fried foods can also be high in saturated fat. Fried food and baked goods tend to be high in trans-fat. Trans fat intake should be limited to less than 1g per day. High intake of trans fat can increase cholesterol levels and increase your risk of developing heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
Avoiding foods high in sodium can also be helpful when building a heart healthy diet and can help lower blood pressure. It’s recommended to consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. That’s just about one teaspoon of salt!
Why is heart health important?
Did you know heart disease is the leading cause of death in America? Cardiovascular disease encompasses several conditions including plaque build-up in arteries, heart attack, stroke, heart failure, irregular heartbeat and other heart problems. Heart disease can occur at any age and doesn’t just affect older generations. Risk factors include hypertension (or high blood pressure), smoking, high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes mellitus. By maintaining a heart healthy diet, exercising regularly and taking care of your body you can avoid these problems.
Ways to make a heart healthy change
Overall, when building a balanced and heart healthy diet, choosing a variety of nutrient-dense foods is the most beneficial.
- Choose plant-based protein sources like beans over red meat.
- Introduce a new vegetable to your dinner plate like spinach or even Brussels sprouts.
- Swap out cooking oils like coconut oil or butter for olive oil.
- Choose whole grain breads, tortillas and crackers instead of white flour breads, tortillas, crackers and white rice.
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables; this will increase your fiber intake.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf Published December 2020. Accessed June 16, 2021.
The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. The American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/aha-diet-and-lifestyle-recommendations Published August 17, 2021. Accessed June 16, 2021.
Monounsaturated Fat. The American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/monounsaturated-fats . Published June 1, 2015. Accessed June 16, 2021.
Polyunsaturated Fat. The American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/polyunsaturated-fats. Published June 1, 2015. Accessed June 16, 2021.
Whole Grains, Refined Grains, and Dietary Fiber. The American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/whole-grains-refined-grains-and-dietary-fiber. Published September 20, 2016. Accessed June 16, 2021.
Know Your Risk for Heart Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/risk_factors.htm. Published December 9, 2019. Accessed June 16, 2021.
Top 10 Myths About Cardiovascular Disease. The American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease/top-10-myths-about-cardiovascular-disease. Published July 31, 2015. Accessed June 16, 2021.