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8 Ways to Make Your Diet More Heart-Healthy

Lifestyle changes can make a big difference
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Stop smoking, exercise, lose weight, and eat healthfully -- that's the mantra heard across the country from cardiologists. That's because diet and lifestyle changes can help prevent heart disease, improve your cardiovascular function, and help you live a longer life.

In fact, according to a recent study in the BMJ, encouraging everyone to follow a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle could substantially cut the number of deaths from heart disease.

So what exactly should you be eating for optimal heart health? Here are some simple dietary changes that can make a difference, according to experts and research:

A Mediterranean-style diet may help lower the risk of heart disease. People who live in the Mediterranean region enjoy a bounty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, olive oil, seafood and lean meats. Eating fewer refined grains and plenty of seafood are thought to be among the secrets to their lower rates of heart disease.

Increasing the soluble fiber in your diet is another easy heart-healthy change. The fiber found in foods like oats, legumes, fruits, and vegetables can help lower cholesterol levels. So start your day with a bowl of oatmeal topped with fruit for a nutritious breakfast that will keep you feeling full all morning. And enjoy beans on your salad or in soups to pump up the fiber while helping to lower your cholesterol level.

Recent research suggests that whole grains can slow the rate of heart disease progression. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend that at least half of your daily grain servings come from whole grains. Whenever you can, choose any of these whole grains instead of refined ones:

  • Whole wheat
  • Whole oats/oatmeal
  • Whole grain corn
  • Popcorn
  • Brown rice
  • Whole rye
  • Whole grain barley
  • Wild rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Millet
  • Quinoa

A low-fat diet is not only lower in calories, but is also important for heart health. Choosing lower-fat sources of protein such as low-fat or nonfat dairy products, skinless poultry breast, pork tenderloin, and "round" cuts of beef will help reduce the fat in your eating plan. Avoiding foods that are fried or processed with fats (such as cookies, crackers, baked goods, and other snack foods) is another way to cut the fat in your diet.

Avoiding trans fats and saturated fats is especially important for managing your cholesterol levels. So whenever possible, opt for an unsaturated fat instead of one that is saturated or contains trans fats. Look for the helpful monounsaturated fats found in canola oil, olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds. Other unsaturated fats, such as corn, safflower and soybean oil, are also better choices than saturated or trans fats. But keep in mind that unsaturated fats are still fats, still high-calorie, and need to be limited in your diet.

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