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Health & Nutrition
Dimitar Marinov
Senior Product Researcher MD, PhD, Assistant Professor

What Does A Heart Healthy Diet Consist Of?

 

Heart disease is so common the CDC reports that every 40 seconds, a US citizen gets a heart attack.

In fact, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women worldwide, and 20% of all deaths in the US are due to heart problems.

If you want to avoid being part of such dreadful statistics, it is important to take preventive measures because it may be too late once you get symptoms.

One of the most effective forms of prevention is making heart-healthy choices regarding what you eat. 

For example, cholesterol is one of the main factors contributing to heart disease, so it is important to keep your cholesterol levels in check with a proper diet.

In this article, you will discover more about the most important dietary habits that can help to lower your risk of heart disease and how to easily implement them in your daily routine.

 

 

What's the best way to reduce the amount of cholesterol in your diet?

 

Because high cholesterol is one of the main risk factors for heart disease, it is no wonder that most diets for heart health revolve around lowering it.

Therefore, one of the first and most popular dietary recommendations aimed at improving heart health was to reduce the amount of cholesterol in your daily diet to 300 mg. In fact this was one of the recommendations of the American Heart Association. The American Heart Association is one of the most reputable medical organizations in the world.

However, since 2013 the American Heart Association guidelines no longer recommend limiting dietary cholesterol simply because there is no evidence that it influences the cholesterol levels in your blood [1].

As it turns out, most people do not need to reduce the amount of cholesterol in their diet.

That is mainly because the primary source of cholesterol in your blood is actually your own body and not your food. And your body regulates its production in accordance with the amount of cholesterol in your food.

In fact, cholesterol is an important molecule that's essential for the life of animals and humans [2]

Your body produces cholesterol for vital functions such as building cell structures, hormones, bile, and synthesis of vitamin D. Then it transports the cholesterol through your blood by packaging it into carriers called lipoproteins. 

Some of these lipoproteins, such as the high-density lipoprotein (HDL), carry the cholesterol away for elimination, while others, such as low-density lipoprotein (LDL), carry it to your tissues for use.

Too much LDL can get oxidized more easily and deposit cholesterol inside your arteries leading to atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes [3]. On the other hand, HDL is known as the "good" cholesterol and has a protective effect.

Yet, this does not mean that your food cannot influence your cholesterol levels. In fact, various nutrients in food (but not dietary cholesterol) can affect the rate at which your body produces cholesterol and even change the balance between HDL and LDL.

Foods that tend to increase LDL cholesterol and you should eat less of are those rich in saturated fats and all processed foods which contain trans-fats. 

It doesn't matter if the food contains dietary cholesterol or not. Even if it is cholesterol-free, if a food contains trans-fats, this means it's not good for your heart. 

Instead, you should replace those with foods that have been shown to lower LDL and increase HDL, such as:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Fat-free protein-rich foods
  • Spices

Fish is also considered a heart healthy food, mainly because fish oil is rich in omega three and increases HDL cholesterol levels [4].

 

 

How does sodium in food affect your heart?

 

 

You may not have to restrict your cholesterol intake to have a heart healthy diet, but sodium is a completely different story. 

Scientists recommend consuming between 3-5 grams of sodium a day, while others go as far as recommending less than 2.3 grams [5]

That's because too much sodium in your diet can disturb the balance between sodium and potassium in your body which is one of the main factors that regulate your blood pressure [6]

If you are consuming much more sodium than potassium, your body will retain more water which may increase your blood pressure. High blood pressure puts a strain on your heart and damages blood vessels, ultimately leading to heart disease.

The main sources of sodium in western diets are table salt and processed foods.

In order to balance your sodium and potassium intake, it is important to focus on consuming unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free dairy products, and legumes.

They are rich in potassium which helps balance out if you have added a moderate amount of sodium to improve the taste.

On the other hand, processed foods are rich in sodium (due to added salt and other taste-enhancing ingredients) and poor in potassium [7]. Therefore limiting processed foods or even completely replacing them with unprocessed ones is one of the best ways to improve your blood pressure and heart health.

 

 

What are the basic guidelines for the cardiac diet?

 

The "cardiac diet" is an unofficial term for a heart-healthy diet. There are many different types of heart-healthy diets, but two stand out as the most effective - the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet [8].

Both diets emphasize eating heart-healthy foods like oats, barley, beans, lentils, fish, skinless poultry, and lean cuts of meat. The recommendations also include heart-healthy cooking methods such as grilling, baking, or steaming. 

Furthermore, both diets include healthy eating tips such as:

  • eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • choose whole grains over refined grains
  • choose lean protein sources
  • limit saturated fats
  • avoid processed foods and trans fats
  • eat moderate amounts of healthy fats

 

What is the DASH diet for heart health?

 

DASH stands for Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension. The focus of the diet is to lower the intake of highly caloric foods, saturated fats, and foods high in sodium [9]

Instead, the diet recommends consuming foods that are high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, and protein in fiber. As a result, it can help you lose weight and lower your cholesterol levels and blood pressure, which all benefits heart health [10].

The DASH diet works by recommending you a specific number of servings daily or weekly based on your recommended energy intake. For someone who needs to eat 2000 kcals a day in order to maintain a healthy body weight, the diet recommends a daily intake of:

  • 6-8 servings of grains (preferably whole grains) (1 serving = 1-ounce dry cereal or 1/2 cup cooked rice)
  • 4-5 servings of vegetables (1 serving = 1 cup raw leafy greens or 1/2 cup cut-up raw or cooked vegetables)
  • 4 to 5 servings of fruits (1 serving = 1 medium fruit).
  • 2-3 servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy products (1 serving = 1 cup milk or yogurt or 1 1/2 ounces cheese)
  • Less than 6 servings of lean meats, poultry, and fish (1 serving = 1 ounce cooked meat, poultry or fish, or 1 egg)
  • 2-3 servings of fats and oils (1 serving = 1 teaspoon vegetable oil)

Your weekly intake may include the following:

  • 4-5 servings of nuts, seeds, and legumes (1 serving is 1/3 cup nuts or 1/2 cup cooked legumes)
  • Less than 5 servings of sweets and added sugars (1 serving is 1 tablespoon jelly or jam or 1 cup lemonade)

 

 

What is the Mediterranean diet for heart health?

 

The Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy diet that emphasizes eating fresh fruits and vegetables, heart-healthy fats, and fish. This type of diet has also been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease. 

The Mediterranean diet is also low in saturated fat and sodium, two other risk factors for heart disease. In addition, the diet is high in fiber, which can help to reduce the risk of heart disease.

In fact, studies have shown a 25 - 50% reduction in cardiovascular disease endpoints over 5 to 12 years, with a 13 - 15% reduction in blood cholesterol levels [11].

However, it is important to note that the Mediterranean diet is high in monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, which can contribute to increased energy intake.

Therefore, you may improve your heart health, but you may also have to be mindful of your calories and pair it with exercise if you want to lose weight [12].

Any heart-healthy diet will work best when paired with exercising and quitting unhealthy habits. 

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week, or a combination of both [13].

Furthermore, quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your heart. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit [14]. There are many resources available to help you quit smoking, including nicotine replacement therapy, counseling, and support groups.

 

 

What are the best foods for heart health?

The best foods for heart health include fish, low-fat dairy, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.


Fish

 

 

Fish such as salmon, tuna, and herring are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help to increase your good cholesterol - HDL [15].

The omega 3s found in fish are called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). They function as the biologically active forms that your body can use for the production of bioactive molecules that regulate your immune response.

Studies show that consuming fatty fish rich in DHA and EPA can also help improve your cardiovascular health by reducing inflammation [16]

Researchers also point out that increased omega-3 intake may help lower blood pressure, which is a major factor in improving heart health [17].

 

 

Low-fat Dairy

 

 

Dairy products such as yogurt are great sources of heart-healthy protein and minerals such as potassium and calcium. Potassium is important for balancing out sodium and helping you maintain healthy blood pressure.

Yet, studies suggest that low calcium intake also is a risk factor for high blood pressure [18]. Hypertension can make the blood flow in your vessels turbulent and damage their lining, ultimately speeding up atherosclerosis.

Low-fat dairy is also a great source of protein which studies have shown to help support a healthy heart while at the same time it is low in saturated fat [19].

 

 

Whole grains

 

 

Whole grains contain fiber and other nutrients that are good for heart health. And the best part is that you can enjoy your favorite foods while simply switching to the whole-grain option. You can go for whole-grain bread, pasta, and cereals.

For example, whole grain cereals such as oatmeal are good for your heart and make great heart-healthy breakfast foods.

Whole grains are rich in soluble fiber, which has well-known effects of lowering the "bad cholesterol" LDL. Studies show that for every 3 g of soluble fiber from oats, total and LDL cholesterol can decrease by approximately 0.13 mmol/L [20].

 

 

Fruits and vegetables

 

 

Fruits and vegetables are arguably the best of all heart-healthy foods because they are packed with nutrients that are good for your cardiovascular system but also have very few calories. 

Fruits and vegetables are great sources of potassium and fiber, so make sure that you include some at every meal.

Choose fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables over canned ones to avoid added sodium. Use salt in moderation in order to improve the taste of the vegetables, and remember that you shouldn't use more than a teaspoon of salt (6 grams = 2,3 mg of sodium) a day if you have hypertension.

Still, finding it hard to make vegetables a bit more interesting and enjoyable? Try these recipes for healthy eating:

 

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Parmesan

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Toss Brussels sprouts with olive oil, salt, and pepper in a large bowl.
  3. Spread on a baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes, until tender and browned.
  4. Sprinkle it with Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

 

Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges

Ingredients:

  • 2 large sweet potatoes, cut into wedges
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Toss sweet potatoes with olive oil, salt, and pepper in a large bowl.
  3. Spread on a baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes until tender and browned.
  4. Serve immediately.

 

Steamed Broccoli with Garlic

Ingredients:

  • 1 head broccoli, cut into florets
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Directions:

  1. Bring water to a boil in a large pot with a steamer insert.
  2. Add broccoli and steam for 5 minutes, until tender.
  3. Whisk together olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper in a small bowl.
  4. Drizzle over steamed broccoli and serve immediately.

 

Note: This article is for informational purposes only and not intended for use as medical advice. Always consult your healthcare provider before starting any dietary supplement. 

 

 

 

 

Dimitar Marinov
Senior Product Researcher MD, PhD, Assistant Professor
Dr. Marinov is a licenced physician and scientist with years of experience in clinical and preventive medicine, medical research, nutrition and dietetics. His research is focused primarily on nutrition and physical activity as preventive measures to improve and preserve human health. He is passionate about creating evidence-based content about various medical topics and takes great care in referencing every statement with high-quality evidence.
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