Even if our actions don't always show it, most of us know that what we eat matters. That's true especially when it comes to heart health.
"Diet risks are considered one of the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease, if not the leading modifiable risk factor for cardiovascular disease," says Penny Kris-Etherton, a professor of nutrition at Penn State and a fellow of the American Heart Association.
"A poor diet really puts a person at very significant risk for cardiovascular disease."
It can lead to obesity, which can lead to heart disease. What you eat -- or don't eat -- can affect your cholesterol level, your blood pressure, and your blood sugar.
If any of these things fall out of whack, it can cause problems for your heart. But changes to your diet could lessen those risks.
Eat More Fruits and Vegetables
Most notably, fruits and vegetables have fiber, which helps makes you feel fuller. Fiber also helps lower your cholesterol and may make heart disease less likely.
Most people aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables, which are key to lowering your cholesterol and blood pressure, says Roxana Ehsani, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Las Vegas.
"Anything naturally high in fiber is something I would tell my clients: 'You really need a boost in these,'" Ehsani says.
Eat More Fish
Omega-3 fatty acids that are in some fish may ease inflammation that can lead to heart disease and stroke. Try to eat fish high in omega-3s at least twice a week.
Some of your best choices include:
- Atlantic mackerel
- Canned, light tuna
Back Off the Red Meat
In most cases, beef and other red meats have more saturated fat than poultry or fish. Saturated fat can raise your cholesterol and make heart disease worse.
If you choose to have red meat from time to time:
- Pick leaner cuts
- Trim the fat
- Choose healthier cooking methods, like baking, boiling, or roasting.
"Red meat is definitely only recommended maybe twice a week," says Jerlyn Jones, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Atlanta.
If you have heart issues or other related cardiovascular issues, talk to your doctor about what's really right for you, she says.
Mix in Beans, Nuts, and Seeds
If you're cutting back on red meat but need the protein it provides, you can opt for something like chicken, or you can go plant-based and try beans.
Beans provide plenty of protein without the saturated fat some meats serve up. They're also a good source of fiber, which can lower your cholesterol.
The best bean-like choices include:
- Black beans
- Garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas)
"And they can be included as your main dish," Jones says. "You can make them in chili -- vegetarian chili -- using lots of different beans."
Nuts, too, are protein-rich. Some have powerful omega-3s. All have fiber. Be careful, though. They're fatty. It's good fat, but that means they're high in calories.
Finally, don't forget the seeds, as snacks or in salads or cooking. Flaxseed and chia, especially, provide healthy proteins and nutrients.
Put Down That Salt Shaker
"There's so much sodium in our food supply. We know that salt increases blood pressure, and blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke," Kris-Etherton says.
Experiment with different herbs and spices instead.
"You want to spice up your spice rack with different flavors," Jones says. "Be adventurous."
But be careful. "I think people take everything out of their cabinet and put it in their food, and it tastes awful," Kris-Etherton says. "You really have to know what you're doing."
Toss Out the Trans Fats
You can find trans fats in all sorts of foods, like:
- Frozen pizzas
- Stick margarines
When they're used for frying you’ll often see them referred to as "partially hydrogenated oils."
Trans fats pack a double whammy for heart health. They lower your "good" cholesterol (HDL) and raise the "bad" (LDL) cholesterol. That can raise your odds of stroke or heart disease more likely. Check food labels. If you want to cook with oils, try canola, corn, or olive.
Change Your Cooking Methods
Deep frying, in any kind of oil, is a no-no. Pan-frying in butter isn’t ideal, either. Butter has saturated fat, which can raise your "bad" cholesterol.
A better choice might be to get away from frying altogether.
"I'm not going to say, 'Just boil your vegetables and just boil you proteins,'" Ehsani says. "But try different ways to prepare the food and figure out a way that you enjoy it.
“I love to roast vegetables, because it kind of caramelizes the vegetables,” she says. “And vegetables that taste really boring just boiled, taste really good roasted.”
Keep an Eye on Portion Size
When we talk about the many complications that can come about if you're overweight, heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure are among the most serious.
Watching what you eat as well as how much you eat can lower your odds of developing these problems.
"If you want a big plate of food, why not have a big plate of fruits and vegetables, with small amounts of meat or fish or seafood and nuts there? And then you have the volume without the calories," Kris-Etherton says.
Talk to your doctor or nutritionist about your weight goals and how to meet them.
Trade Sugary Beverages for Water
A 12-ounce serving of cola has about 150 calories. Root beer has more. Orange soda has even more.
Those calories can lead to weight problems and all the accompanying heart issues.
Water, on the other hand, has no calories. It keeps your body hydrated and your heart working properly.
Give Up Those Comfort Foods
As much as your mom's cooking or your aunt's recipe from the homeland might be a big part of your life, they may not be the best things for your health.
"I work with a variety of different individuals from different cultures. What I find is hard for them is to break away from their traditional, cultural food," Jones says.
"But if it's preventing them from reducing their cholesterol or reducing their blood pressure … it's all about limiting or reducing the amounts of those foods and adding others that are going to keep you healthier."