To boost your heart health, start by changing what’s on your plate. Whether you're trying to prevent future heart problems, are already living with high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or have a problem like atrial fibrillation, which often results from a diet-related heart problem, making simple tweaks to your diet could have big benefits. Here are some guidelines to follow.
Believe the hype. Eating heart-healthy really does matter. One study of more than 42,000 healthy women found that those who ate a diet that emphasized vegetables, lean meats, grains, and low-fat dairy were 31% less likely to die in the next 6 years than women with unhealthy diets.
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Don't diet. A crash diet may work if you're trying to fit into a dress by next month. But if you're trying to improve your heart health, cycling through different fad diets won't help. Diets that rule out one type of food -- whether it's carbs or fat -- don't work either. Instead, take a sensible approach. Focus on lean meats, vegetables, and whole grains to get long-term benefits for your heart and your waistline.
Don't gorge yourself. Overeating will cause you to gain weight, but that's not all. Studies have found that more people have heart attacks after big meals.
Eat less salt. Most Americans think sea salt is a low-sodium alternative to regular table salt. Wrong. It has the same amount of sodium. Any type of salt increases your blood pressure. You probably need to eat less salt; most people do. The guideline is no more than a teaspoon a day. If you already have high blood pressure, you should eat even less. And it doesn’t just come from the salt shaker. Up to 75% of the salt you eat comes from processed foods such as soups and frozen meals. If food comes in a can or a box, check the sodium content.
Avoid caffeine. If you have atrial fibrillation, caffeine and other stimulants can trigger symptoms.
Drink in moderation. Yes, studies show that drinking modest amounts of alcohol, not just wine, has heart benefits. But don't assume that if a glass is good, a jug must be better. More than one drink a day for women or two for men increases your risk for heart problems. It drives up blood pressure and can trigger irregular heartbeats in people with atrial fibrillation.
Choose meats wisely. Red meat is usually high in saturated fat, which is bad for your heart. That doesn't mean you have to banish meat from your diet. Just be savvy. Choose the leanest cuts, and always cut off the fat. Look for cuts such as sirloin, flank, rump roast, and tenderloin. Or choose pork tenderloin, turkey, or chicken breast as an alternative.