Your heart plays a key role in your overall health. It is the main organ of your cardiovascular system, which makes it responsible for circulating blood throughout the body, controlling your Heartbeat and maintenance of your arterial pressure. You might be wondering, since the heart is such a vital organ, how can we keep it healthy? Turns out, your diet has an important job.
Everyone from the American Heart Association to the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends making specific food choices to support heart health. Because heart-healthy foods can reduce other potential cardiovascular problems, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, it’s worth keeping this in mind when planning your weekly meals.
Keep reading to learn what foods to look for, what foods you’re probably already eating, and what a heart-healthy diet looks like overall.
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What is a heart healthy diet?
Studies have revealed two things: foods that are riskier for your heart and foods that strengthen it. Luckily, you’re not about to get hit by a bunch of curveballs. The best foods for heart health are those that you probably already consider healthy. Likewise, not-so-heart-healthy foods are probably already on your radar for doing your body a disservice.
Before we dive in here, let’s say: everything in moderation. Unless you already have know you have a heart condition, you don’t need to cut out food or make drastic changes. We’re not saying you can never have another piece of bacon or open another soda. Instead, being aware of what a heart-healthy diet looks like can help you incorporate more of these foods into your meals.
Now let’s talk about the details. According to the AHA and the Department of Health, a heart-healthy diet is rich in:
- lean protein
- Fiber-rich complex carbohydrates
- healthy fats
A diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins and fats will give your body the fiber, vitamins, and minerals it needs to support a healthy heart.
Conversely, if you’re trying to improve your cardiovascular health, you want to limit your intake of:
- trans fat
- Saturated fats
- Processed meats (for example, lunch meat, salami, and hot dogs)
- Excess salt
- Excess sugar
- Refined carbohydrates (for example, white breads and snacks)
- Red meat
- Excess alcohol
If a lot of your favorites are on the worst heart list, don’t panic. You can still include them in your diet (unless otherwise directed by your doctor). Just make sure these foods don’t take over at every meal, and try to add as many heart-healthy foods as you can into your day.
Heart healthy foods
If you want to feel good about what your next grocery trip will do for your heart health, you can enter items into these specific categories.
1. Fruits and vegetables
Do you remember the food pyramid from back then? It was on something. Your body benefits from eating a few products.
This is because vegetables and fruits pack a lot of nutrient density per bite. Bananas and sweet potatoes provide potassium, a key mineral for heart health. Cruciferous vegetables can help prevent clogged arteries. Leafy greens provide fiber, which can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
In short, the more products you pack, the better. And if fresh produce doesn’t fit your budget or lifestyle, don’t worry. You can get many nutritional benefits from frozen, dried, and canned options. Just make sure they are labeled low sodium.
2. Whole grains
Not all carbs are bad. Refined carbs like those in white bread pass through your body, usually doing you more harm than good. But complex carbs, like those you’ll find in whole-grain products, provide fiber, which we’ve already mentioned as a heart-health boost.
Additionally, they often contain vitamins and minerals like iron, selenium, thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), folate (vitamin B9), and magnesium. If you’re looking for heart-healthy nutrition, choose products that have whole grains in their ingredient list. Additionally, complex carbs can also be found in beans, potatoes, peas, and corn.
3. Lean, plant-based protein
While some proteins — like red meat and processed meat — can be hard on your heart, others top the list of heart-healthy foods. The key here is to look for plant proteins, lean animal proteins and fish. Experts recommend mixing your protein sources. So you have plenty of options, stock up on:
- Fish, especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids
- Low-fat dairy products
Swap out some of your red meat and pork jerky for the options above and you’ll be doing your heart a favor.
4. Healthy Fats
You may think that fat is synonymous with heart trouble, but it all depends on the type fat. Although trans and saturated fats have been linked to cardiovascular problems in numerous studies, your body, including your heart, needs healthy fats. You can get them from fish, nuts and seeds, as well as avocados and moderate amounts of vegetable oils such as:
- Olive oil
- Sesame oil
- soybean oil
- Canola oil
- corn oil
- safflower oil
As a rule of thumb, if the fat is solid at room temperature, it’s probably saturated. If it was a liquid, it most likely falls under the unsaturated variety. Think butter (controversial for health) vs. olive oil (integral part of a heart-healthy diet).
5. Foods to control the heart
The American Heart Association has certified certain foods for heart health and given them the Heart-Check seal, which you can find on some food packaging. Once you learn this sigil, it can be easier to fill your basket with heart-healthy foods.
For best results, combine your heart-healthy diet with other heart health boosters as regular exercise, sleep and stress management techniques. It can also be useful to know your blood type and what this means for your risk of specific cardiovascular diseases.
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.