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Fighting Heart Disease With Food Labels: Expert Q&A

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What about sodium?

Too much sodium increases the risk of high blood pressure, or hypertension. High blood pressure, in turn, increases the risk of developing heart disease. Some people don’t seem to be as sensitive to salt as others. If you have high blood pressure, you should definitely limit sodium intake. The most recent evidence shows that the less sodium you consume, the lower your risk of hypertension. The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, originally set the limit at no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily. New evidence shows that lowering your intake to 1,500 milligrams further lowers your risk of high blood pressure. Since three-quarters or more of the salt we consume comes in packaged foods, labels are particularly helpful here.

Labels also show potassium levels. What should we look for?

Too much sodium and too little potassium both play a role in high blood pressure. Low potassium levels can also affect the electrical impulses that activate the heart, causing heart beat irregularities. The Institute of Medicine recommends 4,700 milligrams of potassium a day. But rather than worry about numbers on the label, I’d suggest eating more foods with potassium, which include fruits and vegetables, especially orange juice, broccoli, garlic, bananas, tomatoes, and beans -- all of which are healthy for you in many ways.

A lot of people are cutting back on carbohydrates. What help can food labels offer?

The total amount of carbohydrates is less important than the type. The healthiest forms are unrefined carbohydrates, which are found in whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts, and other whole, unprocessed foods. (Limit less healthy carbs such as sugar, white rice, and regular breads and pastas.) It’s wise to look at a label to make sure it contains whole grains and plenty of fiber. Several studies have shown that people who eat plenty of whole grains have a lower risk of heart disease.

What about protein?

We know protein is important. The body needs it for many functions. Protein in a meal helps make it satisfying. That can help people maintain a healthy weight. But labels aren’t particularly useful, since most of the protein people consume is in foods that aren’t required to have nutrition panels, such as fish, meat, and poultry. Here you need to use some commonsense guidelines. The best sources of protein are unprocessed foods with the least saturated fat. That includes plant-based sources, such as nuts and beans, and fish and lean meat. A healthy diet should contain 60 to 120 grams of good quality protein a day.

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