Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It accounts for more than 859,000 deaths per year, reports the American Heart Association (AHA). Why should those statistics—or a heart-healthy diet matter to you?
You may be at greater risk than you think. About 45% of all adults in the U.S., or 108 million people, have high blood pressure. High blood pressure puts you at increased risk for heart disease and stroke. So does high cholesterol. Given how prevalent heart disease is, no one can really afford to ignore cardiovascular health.
“Heart health is critically important for all of us to take into account,” says cardiologist Nicole Harkin, MD, founder of Whole Heart Cardiology. One of the best ways to regain some control is by taking a hard look at what you put in your refrigerator, pantry, and body every day. Learn how to decrease your risk of heart disease by making some positive changes to your eating patterns.
What is considered a heart-healthy diet?
In general, a heart-healthy diet is one that is heavy on fruit, vegetables, and whole grains—and light on red meat and unhealthy fats including saturated fats and trans fats. Trans fats, which are often found in foods containing partially hydrogenated oils, raise your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, also known as your bad cholesterol, and decrease your HDL, or good, cholesterol.
“You’ve heard it before, but it works,” says John P. Cooke, MD, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of cardiovascular science at Houston Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center and a science advisory board member for Humann.
First, consider the foods that you want to eat more of. When you’re selecting recipes, you might want to look for recipes that call for ingredients like vegetables, beans, and fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
“Choose foods that are rich in antioxidants, as they reduce inflammation in the body and can aid in preventing heart issues,” adds Bansari Acharya, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist with foodlove.com. “The best foods with antioxidants include any type of berries, especially blueberries, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, and avocados.”
Now, let’s consider the foods that you want to limit or possibly even avoid.
Foods that are high in saturated fat top the list, as they can drive up your blood cholesterol levels, notably your LDL cholesterol. This includes a lot of foods that come from animal products. Think meat and full-fat dairy. That includes processed meats, beef, pork, full-fat cheese, and butter. However, it also includes many fried foods, baked goods, and prepackaged snack foods.
If you’re not already doing so, start reading nutrition facts labels when you’re still at the grocery stores to find out how much saturated fat is in the food before you buy it. The AHA recommends limiting saturated fat consumption to about 5% or 6% of your total caloric intake. That works out to about 13 grams of saturated fat per day if you’re sticking with a 2,000-calorie daily eating plan.
Here’s a bonus: Eating a heart-healthy diet may also help you maintain a healthy body weight. That, in turn, may help you further reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
The 2 best heart diets to try
Two of the best diets you can try are the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. Here’s what you need to know about both of them.
The Mediterranean eating plan offers numerous health benefits, meeting the AHA’s recommendations for heart-healthy eating and even helping to reverse prediabetes. When you follow this eating plan, you concentrate on eating lots of nutrient-rich, plant-based foods. That includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts and seeds. It also recommends using olive oil in place of butter and sticking to low to moderate amounts of lean protein like fish and chicken, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products (instead of their full-fat counterparts).
The AHA also gives a thumbs up to the DASH diet. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This plan also emphasizes the fruits, veggies, and whole grains, with smaller amounts of low-fat and fat-free dairy, fish, poultry, nuts, and vegetable oils. You also want to cut back on the saturated and trans fats. According to the AHA, this diet allows more meat and low-fat dairy than the Mediterranean diet generally does. Another hallmark of this diet is its approach toward salt: You should aim to keep your daily sodium intake below 2300 mg—and ideally to 1500 mg or below.
One specific way in which these diets are good for your heart: They tend to emphasize foods that contain dietary nitrates, says Dr. Cooke. Research, such as this 2015 study in the journal Hypertension, suggests that dietary nitrate may help lower blood pressure. How? Your body converts this substance into nitric oxide, which is a vasodilator. In other words, those foods are helping to keep your blood vessels open and the blood flowing easily through them.
Foods like beets, leafy green vegetables, citrus foods, and nuts and seeds are high in dietary nitrates that your body can convert to nitric oxide. “Keeping your blood vessels healthy is also going to help you defeat infectious diseases,” adds Dr. Cooke.
How to stick to a heart-healthy diet plan
“Aim to eat a heart-healthy diet most of the time,” says Dr. Cooke. “Eat more vegetables, eat more fish, and get exercise every day–30 minutes of exercise every day–and you’ll be healthier.”
But even if you have all the good intentions in the world, sticking to a heart-healthy diet plan can be challenging. You might want to make changes, but it seems overwhelming to overhaul your entire diet at once. And you worry that you won’t be able to stick with them over the long haul.
Start with small changes
You don’t actually have to overhaul your whole diet all at once. In fact, it might be better not to. Think small steps. Successfully making a few positive changes can set the tone and inspire you to keep going.
“I always meet people where they are, so I think starting small and making those small changes that are easily attainable are key,” Dr. Harkin says.
You could start by introducing one vegetarian meal per week. It could be a new dish or a change to a favorite dish. For example, you could replace the red meat in your Tuesday night tacos with black beans or lentils. A few other simple steps that are examples of small, but meaningful include:
- Trading butter for a heart-healthier olive oil
- Swapping the white rice or pasta for the whole-grain versions
- Using whole grain bread instead of white bread
- Replacing high-fat milk or yogurt with low-fat dairy products
- Substituting snack crackers with a handful of walnuts, which are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease
- Choose to eat fish that’s rich in omega-3s
Gradually incorporate more positive changes
After you’ve made a couple of small changes to get started, “You’ll feel good about yourself and you’ll realize that you can do it,” Dr. Harkin says.
That’s when it’s time to start adding in a few more changes. If you’ve been relying on a few tried-and-true recipes for heart-healthy meals, introduce a new dish or try a new recipe each week.
Forgive yourself if you slip up
You’ll occasionally have departures from your heart-healthy eating pattern, and that’s okay. As Dr. Cooke notes, everyone gets tempted from time to time.
The important thing to do is to acknowledge it and move on. Give yourself some grace and don’t dwell on any so-called mistakes.
Don’t forget to take your medications appropriately
Eating a heart-healthy diet is definitely a step in the right direction, but you want to be mindful about your medications, too. Don’t stop taking any medication that your cardiologist may have prescribed without discussing it with your healthcare provider first.
“If you have a heart condition, lifestyle is not a replacement for your medications,” Dr. Harkin says. “There are certain circumstances in which we can certainly decrease the dose or stop some medicine. But that should always be done under the supervision of your doctor.”
If you have heart disease or a condition that raises your risk of heart disease, you may be taking one or more types of medication for your condition. For example, if you have high cholesterol, you might be taking a medication to lower cholesterol levels, perhaps a statin like Lipitor or Crestor.
Other medications that you might be taking include one or more of the following:
- Anticoagulants (blood thinners)
- Antiplatelet Agents or Dual Antiplatelet Therapy
- Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme (ACE) Inhibitors
- Angiotensin II Receptor Blockers
- Angiotensin Receptor-Neprilysin Inhibitors
- Beta Blockers
- Calcium Channel Blockers
Of course, there are some foods that are problematic when you’re taking certain meds. Make sure to discuss any potential food-drug interactions with your healthcare provider when you’re planning your new diet.