Your heart spends every second of the day working hard for your body, and it’s up to you to treat it right. When it comes to heart health, the old adage of “food as medicine” rings true — people who follow a heart-healthy diet have a 31% lower risk of heart disease. You’ll also be supporting your whole health in the process.
Benefits of a Heart-Healthy Diet
A heart-healthy diet helps the body by:
- Reducing cholesterol: When “bad” cholesterol is too high, it can cause a plaque buildup in the arteries, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Lowering blood pressure: High blood pressure damages the arteries over time by making them less elastic, which makes it harder for blood and oxygen to flow to the heart.1
- Fueling it with powerful nutrients: Heart-healthy diets are heavy on nutrient-rich foods like whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, many of which are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
- Keeping weight in check: Being overweight or obese is linked to a number of factors that increase the risk of coronary artery disease, heart failure, and stroke, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
Pillars of a heart-healthy diet
You can keep your heart healthy by following a few simple but important guidelines. If you want a structured diet, look to the Mediterranean diet, a vegetarian diet, and the DASH diet. These are the best diets for heart health, according to research from the Mayo Clinic, and incorporate many or all of the heart health tips below.
Eat Smaller Meals More Frequently
If you skip meals, you might end up overeating later. Instead of one or two large meals a day, try eating smaller, frequent meals and snacks. It helps control your metabolism and blood sugar, and more meals also means a bigger variety of nutrients from different foods throughout the day.
Drink Alcohol in Moderation
Drinking too much alcohol increases the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, liver disease, and many other health problems. Science has also shown that drinking, in combination with high cholesterol, can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Limit Your Sugar Intake
The average adult gets about 17 teaspoons of sugar a day — almost double the daily limit for men and triple the limit for women. Sugar-heavy foods and drinks can cause high blood pressure and cholesterol and are often high in calories, which can lead to weight gain.
Eat More Fiber
A fiber-rich diet is full of health benefits: Fiber keeps you full longer, which can help control weight and can keep cholesterol and blood sugar in check. Oats, beans, lentils, fruits, cottage cheese, and whole grain options like whole wheat spaghetti or whole wheat bread are all excellent sources of fiber, although there are plenty of others, too.
Choose Whole Grains
Aside from being great sources of fiber, whole grains provide more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than refined carbohydrate options like white bread, many breakfast cereals, and most pastas. Eating an extra one or two servings of whole grains a day can lower the risk of heart disease by up to 20%.
Eat Healthy Fats
Red meat, fried food, and high-fat dairy products are usually high in cholesterol and saturated and trans fats, which can cause weight gain and increase the risk of heart disease. Instead, choose healthier sources of fat.
Reduce Your Sodium Intake
Too much sodium can increase your blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Check nutrition labels — excess sodium is lurking in many processed foods such as deli meats, canned soups, salad dressings, and frozen meals. Look for items advertised as reduced salt, like reduced salt ketchup and soy sauce.
Eat Lots of Fruit and Vegetables
Fruits and veggies are low in sodium, but that’s not their only benefit: They’re also low in calories, high in fiber, rich in minerals and nutrients, and can lower cholesterol. Antioxidant-rich foods like leafy greens, blueberries, and citrus all are associated with a lower risk for heart problems.