Eating nutritious foods is fundamental to the prevention of cardiovascular disease, but what exactly is heart-healthy? At the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation®, we aim to identify essential aspects of a heart-healthy eating pattern that are formulated on the latest evidence-based research.
There are multiple factors that influence what we eat, so rather than providing strict, detailed rules, these guidelines will outline broad principles that can be applied to a range of personal and cultural preferences. We hope the following information will help you understand the most important principles of eating heart-smart.
Eat whole foods
Whole, fresh foods – fruits, vegetables and whole grains – contain more nutrients and vitamins than their processed counterparts. In addition, processed foods foods frequently contain large amounts of salt or sugar in order to extend their shelf life or enhance their flavor.
- Eat single-ingredient foods whenever possible.
- Cook more meals at home and make your own dips and dressings.
- Incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet.
Embrace fruits and vegetables
The research is clear: a diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of heart attack, stroke and premature death. Fruits and vegetables are nature’s nutritional powerhouses. They are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber, and low in sodium and calories.
For optimal heart health eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day.
- Cover half your plate with fruit and vegetables at each meals. Count the colors in your meals and add more!
- Prepare ahead of time to make it easier – for example, keep a basked of fresh, washed fruits on the counter for snacks, and cut up vegetables in advance for easy additions to meals.
- Move fruits and vegetables to the top drawers of the refrigerator for easier visibility.
What’s in a serving?
- 1 cup of raw vegetables
- 1/2 cup 100% vegetable juice
- 1/2 cup cooked vegetables
- 1 cup melon or berries
- 1/2 cup canned fruit in natural juices
- 1/4 cup dried fruit
Power up with whole grains
Whole-grain foods contain fiber and essential minerals and have been associated with improved cholesterol and a lower risk of heart disease. Whole grains can also keep you feeling satisfied between meals, which may help with weight management.
Eat at least three servings of whole grains every day.
- Recognize whole grains. The first ingredient should include the word “whole,” such as “whole wheat,” “whole oat” or “whole rye.” Be cautious of words like “multi-grain” or “12-grain.” This only tells you that more than one grain exists within the product. It does not tell you whether those grains are whole.
- Eat whole-grain foods such as oatmeal or whole-grain cereal for a quick and easy way to start your day.
- Limit processed carbohydrates such as white bread, white pasta and white rice.
Don't fear fat
Healthy fat is an essential part of a heart-healthy eating pattern and overall health. Olive oil, nuts and seeds have high fat content, but have been shown to lower your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. All fats are equal in terms of calories, but some types of fat are healthier than others. Choose foods with unsaturated fats, limit foods in saturated fat and avoid trans fat.
- Use olive or canola oil as a replacement for butter in cooking or baking.
- Include avocados, nuts and seeds in your meals and snacks.
- Use moderation with red meat, butter and cheese.
Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, albacore tuna, sardines and herring, are excellent sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce plaque buildup in the arteries, decrease triglyceride levels and prevent heart attacks.
- Grill, bake or broil fish rather than frying or breading.
- Prepare fish using low-sodium seasonings, such as lemon, spices and herbs.
Eating just a handful – one ounce – of nuts each day can help prevent heart attack and stroke. Nuts contain healthy fats, protein and fiber, but be cautious not to overdo it.
- Sprinkle your salad with nuts instead of cheese; top roasted vegetables with toasted walnuts or pine nuts.
- Avoid candied, honey-roasted or heavily salted nuts and seeds, as these add unnecessary sugar and sodium.
The scoop on dairy
Dairy contains calcium, protein, vitamin D, potassium and other nutrients essential to a balanced diet. The consumption of dairy has been associated with reduced blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease. Eat three servings of dairy a day to reduce your blood pressure and improve overall heart health.
Eggs are nutritious and an excellent source of high-quality protein. Despite their high cholesterol content, one whole egg may be consumed daily as part of a heart-healthy diet.
Try to avoid sweetened milk products such as flavored milk and yogurt with fruit, as they often have extra sugar.
Rethink your drink
Sugary drinks are a major contributor to the obesity epidemic and other heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure and triglycerides. The American Heart Association recommends that women limit calories from all sugar – not just sugar-sweetened beverages – to no more than 100 per day, and that mend limit calories from sugar to no more than 150 per day.
Select foods or beverages where sugar is not one of the first three ingredients listed, and watch for names of added sugars such as sucrose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup and fructose.
Moderate alcohol has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, however, if you don’t drink, don’t start in an attempt to prevent a heart attack! Excessive amounts of alcohol may raise your blood pressure, and the extra calories can contribute to weight gain.
If you choose to drink alcohol, women should limit their consumption to one drink per day, and men should drink no more than two.
What counts as a drink?
- One 12-ounce beer
- One 4-ounce glass of wine
- One 1.5-ounce short of spirits
Shakedown on sodium
The average American eats more than 3,400 mg of sodium per day – nearly 1½ times the recommended amount. Most of the salt we eat comes from canned or processed foods, so eating more fresh foods and switching to lower-sodium versions of packaged foods are good places to start. Gradually making changes to the foods you eat will allow you to start enjoying the natural taste of foods.
- Try to eat 2,400 mg or less of sodium per day, or about 600-700 mg per mean (with room for snacks).
- Choose fresh poultry, meat or fish over processed or cured meats such as deli meat, hot dogs, bacon or ham.
- Use herbs and spices instead of salt to add flavor to your meals.
Supplement or not
More than half of adults in the U.S. report taking at least one dietary supplement daily. But popularity does not translate to necessity or safety. Many supplements contain active ingredients that can have strong effects and interact with prescription drugs in ways that might cause problems. Always talk with your provider about any over-the-counter supplements or herbals that you are taking.
It is always best to get nutrients from food first before taking supplements, as they cannot replace eating a variety of foods that are important to a heart-healthy eating pattern.
Create a positive food environment
Recent research has demonstrated that multiple aspects of our food environment play a significant role in what type of and how much food we eat on a given day. The size of your place, what’s in your pantry, who buys your grocers and multiple other environmental factors greatly influence what you eat.
- Try using smaller plates, bowls or serving dishes.
- Keep your fridge and pantry stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy options.
- When eating out, share meals when possible.
- At a party or buffet, stick to two or three foods that you really like, rather than trying a little bit of everything.