The Benefits of a Heart Healthy Diet

In celebration of National Heart Month, we stand in praise of the heart, a beautiful muscle that never takes time off. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. A good heart-healthy diet requires both the right diet and lifestyle changes―and by lifestyle, we mean exercise. The Mayo Clinic recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity daily and 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly.

A heart-healthy diet helps reduce the risk of various cardiovascular diseases, heart attacks, and strokes, among many benefits. We’ve taken the American Heart Association’s diet recommendations and distilled them here into a bite-sized checklist.

Soluble Fiber

Soluble Fiber attracts water and slows digestion.  Foods in this category include barley, ground flaxseed, nuts, seeds, peas, oat bran and some fruits (applies, bananas, strawberries, blueberries) and vegetables (carrots, beans, peas). Soluble fiber aids in lowering your cholesterol levels, managing blood sugar levels, and improving your body’s glucose control, which can aid in reducing risk for diabetes. 

Whole Grains

Whole grains play a significant role in regulating blood pressure and contributing to good heart health.  Substitute your refined grain products with whole grains, including: high-fiber cereal, whole grains such as rice, barley, farro, quinoa, and buckwheat, whole grain pasta, oatmeal and whole-wheat flour.  Some foods to steer clear of include crackers, muffins, white bread, frozen waffles, corn bread, biscuits, cakes, pies, buttered popcorn and egg noodles. 

The Right Cholesterol

Cholesterol should not be avoided completely. Those high in saturated fats should be avoided, but those low in saturated fats are good for you. Good-cholesterol foods include olive oil, avocados, chia seeds, beans and legumes, salmon, shrimp, and eggs. Do avoid trans fats and saturated fats, which are not as prevalent as they once were, but can still be found in things like fatty red meats (prime rib, lamb, pork), peanut butter, packaged cakes and cookies, donuts, and muffins. Watch for labels that cite “partially hydrogenated oils”―those are trans fats. In the case of peanut butter, buy organic and raw with no added ingredients.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These are found in some nuts and seeds, as well as fatty fish. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce blood pressure and slow the growth of plaque in the arteries. Some great options here include salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, and walnuts. Your doctor may also recommend a supplement of Omega-3 fatty acids to make sure you are getting enough. Fish oil capsules are easy to find in your local drugstore. 

Foods Low in Salt

Salt increases blood volume, forcing your heart to work much harder to pump it. Eat 1,500 mg or less sodium daily to keep blood pressure low and look for hidden salts; avoid anything over 140 mg. Substitute with herbs and spices to enhance the flavors of your food. Some common foods high in sodium to avoid include sauces, condiments (like ketchup!), cookies, cakes, and cereal.

Avoid Sugar as Much as Possible

The American Heart Association recommends that women eat no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day (24 grams or 100 calories). Foods that are naturally low in sugar include sweet potatoes, yams, oatmeal and oat bran, garlic, most nuts, and most fruits, with melon and pineapple the exception. You want to avoid foods such as candy, fruit drinks, soft drinks, sweetened yogurt and milk, ice cream, cakes, cookies, and pies. Sneaky sources of sugar include lurk in things like yogurts, condiments, and sauces.