10 Tips For A Heart-Healthy Diet

At Westchester Health, we have a number of patients who are overweight and come to us for guidance on how to eat a healthier diet. They want to lose weight, lower their blood pressure and take better care of their heart. Others want to maintain their present weight rather than gaining, and still others want to know if they are eating as healthily as they could be. Given the strong connection between your diet and your risk of heart disease, this seems to be a good time to share important information about ways to align your eating habits to help your heart become, or remain, healthy.

Dr James Catanese, MD, FACC

So what should you eat and not eat?

For most people, healthy eating includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, unsaturated vegetable oils like safflower or olive oil, low-fat dairy, unsalted nuts, legumes, fish and skinless poultry.

You should eat more of these…

  • Healthy fats like unsalted nuts, olive oil, flax seed and avocados
  • Fruits, vegetables and legumes like lentils and other beans
  • High-fiber, low-sugar whole grain cereals, breads, pastas
  • High-quality protein like fish, skinless poultry and lean meats
  • Low-fat dairy and natural cheese

…and less of these

  • Deep fried food, fast food, snack foods
  • Packaged food, especially those high in sodium and sugar
  • White bread, sugary cereals, refined pasta or rice
  • Processed meat like bacon, sausage, deli meats or fried chicken
  • Yogurt with added sugar
  • Processed cheese
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, cookies, grain-based desserts

10 simple guidelines for eating heart healthy

Making healthy food choices can reduce your risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke, as well as reduce risk factors like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Here’s some help making those smart choices, from Healthbeat:

  1. Limit Bad fat (saturated fat and trans fat)

Foods containing saturated fat (fatty beef, bacon, sausage, lamb, pork, butter, cheese and other dairy products made from whole or 2% milk) raise the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your blood. High cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Trans fats (also called trans fatty acids) are found in processed food and labeled as partially hydrogenated oils. Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken) and baked goods (doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies) as well as frozen pizza and stick margarine are common sources of trans fats. Trans fats raise your bad cholesterol levels, lower your good cholesterol levels and can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

  1. Limit your salt intake

Too much sodium in the bloodstream can increase water retention and increase your blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure puts greater strain on the heart and can contribute to plaque build-up that can cause a stroke. More than 75% of sodium intake comes from processed, prepackaged and restaurant foods, so check the labels of food you buy and choose low sodium options when available.

  1. Choose low-fat dairy

Dairy can be a big source of saturated fat, so when possible, choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as skim or 1% milk. Other options include low-fat cheese (part-skim ricotta, dry-curd cottage cheese and natural cheese.) The fats in dairy are associated with high blood cholesterol, but eating low-fat dairy is linked to a reduced risk of stroke.

  1. Eat fresh produce

Eating fruits and vegetables is an essential part of a heart-healthy diet because they are low in calories and high in fiber and other nutrients. In-season produce is preferred but canned or frozen fruits and vegetables can be sufficiently nutritious too. (Check the labels for sodium levels and try to buy options with no added sugar.)

  1. Choose whole grains

Whole grains contain B vitamins, fiber, folic acid, iron, magnesium, selenium and other nutrients that are typically lost in the refining process. Whole wheat, oats, oatmeal, rye, barley, popcorn, brown and wild rice, and buckwheat are all good sources of whole grains that can help improve blood cholesterol levels and lower risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

  1. Don’t forget fiber

Dietary fiber comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble. The former is especially associated with reduced levels of bad cholesterol and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, but all foods containing dietary fiber offer healthy benefits. Oats and oat bran offer the most concentrated sources of soluble fiber, while wheat, rye, rice and other grains are mostly insoluble fiber. Legumes, beans, and peas as well as certain fruits, like pears, and vegetables, like peas, are also good sources of soluble and insoluble fibers.

  1. For protein, choose lean meats, fish or beans

For many people, meat is their primary source of protein, but burgers, steak and bacon are also major sources of saturated fat. Changing to heart-healthy proteins can help reduce your risk factors of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends fish, shellfish, skinless poultry and trimmed lean meats. Also, beans, peas, lentils or tofu can be mixed with whole grains such as brown rice as a protein source without the saturated fat.

  1. Manage your portions

A 3-ounce portion of protein (an optimal serving size) can fit in the palm of your hand.    

                                               (Image credit: Susanna Hopler)                                                      

  1. Drink lots of water

Soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks (including juice) are major sources of added sugar. A can of regular soda contains eight teaspoons of sugar, or about 130 calories, and diet sodas with artificial sweeteners offer zero nutrients but often contribute to weight gain and obesity, which are risk factors for heart disease. Just plain water is best.

  1. Stay active

Having a heathy heart requires more than just a good diet, although what you eat is enormously important. Exercise is also crucial, whether your goal is to lose weight, maintain your present weight, strengthen your heart, or lower your risk of heart disease. Exercising regularly can reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, increase muscle mass and tone, and improve your metabolism. It is also a great way to reduce stress. You should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity (a little over 2 hours) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (a little over an hour) each week.

Read our blogs on the subject

We’ve written several informative blogs focusing on conditions of the cardiovascular system, which you can read here.

Helpful websites we recommend

Want more advice for a heart-healthy diet? Please come see us.

If you are concerned about your risk of heart disease and want to know how to shift to a heart-healthy diet, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health cardiologists. We’ll examine you, evaluate your symptoms, maybe perform some tests, and together with you, decide on the best diet going forward, given your individual health needs. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

By James W. Catanese, MD, FACC, a cardiologist with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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