Eat Your Way to a Healthy Heart

The right foods can lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. They can also ease inflammation. All of that will help you manage or prevent cardiovascular problems as you get older.

But it can be hard to give up the not-so-healthy stuff you really enjoy.

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It might be easier to add nutrient-dense foods to the meals you already eat, says Jerlyn Jones, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“If you like to eat nachos, maybe add some tomato and lettuce,” Jones says. “That way, you have some vegetables on top of your cheese and chips.”

Check with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) if you need help making meal plans. You can ask your doctor for a referral or visit eatright.org to find an RDN in your area.

“We’re trained to help make changes that work for you,” Jones says. “And if you’re having issues that make it harder to eat as you’re getting older, your RDN will make sure you can include heart-healthy foods you can enjoy.”

What Is Heart-Healthy Food?

You’ll want to pick snacks and meals that are low in both added salt and unhealthy saturated fats. Instead, load up on foods high in fiber and packed with antioxidants and flavonoids. That’s the good stuff you find in minimally-processed plant-based foods.

“You can’t go wrong with eating more fruits and vegetables, especially with different colors,” Jones says.

If you’re 50 or older, try adding more beans and legumes to your meals. You can eat them alone or throw them in a chili. “Those are high in fiber, protein, and B-vitamins,” Jones says. “And they’re affordable and easy to prepare.”

There are lots of options, such as:

  • Lentils
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Kidney, pinto, or black beans
  • Chickpeas

If you opt for canned beans, Jones says to choose low or no salt options. But you can also rinse some of the extra salt off in a strainer.

Green, leafy vegetables are another great choice. Look for:

  • Kale
  • Swiss chard
  • Collard and mustard greens
  • Bok Choy

 “Those are vegetables that are easy just to throw into soups or put on sandwiches or salads,” Jones says.

And don’t forget about nuts and seeds.

“Just a handful of any that you enjoy, like walnuts, peanuts, or pistachios, can satisfy your hunger and keep your heart healthy,” Jones says.  

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Add Some Omega-3s

If you’re like most adults, you don’t eat enough oily fish. That kind of fish is high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Studies show one or two seafood meals a week can lower your odds of heart failure, heart disease, stroke, or sudden cardiac death.

To up your omega-3 intake, add at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fish each week.

Mercury is always a concern when it comes to eating fish. Some low-mercury options packed with omega-3s include:

  • Salmon
  • Canned tuna
  • Catfish
  • Atlantic mackerel
  • Pollock
  • Trout

Flax seeds and chia seeds are another good source.

“I like adding ground flax seeds to apple slices that are dipped in peanut butter,” Jones says. “Or you can put them in your cereal or yogurt.”

Modify Your Meals

Breakfast is probably the easiest place to start making healthier food choices. Jones tells her clients to start their day with a piece of fruit or unsweetened applesauce. If you eat oatmeal, get the no-sugar kind. Add some berries for sweetness and top with a little cinnamon and nuts.

When it comes to any of your meals, it’s a good idea to think about what you can add instead of what you’re taking away.  

If spaghetti is your favorite dinner, Jones suggests tossing in some frozen carrots, peas, broccoli, or corn. Add some beans while you’re at it.

“You’re not taking away the food you like,” she says. “But you’re still boosting your nutrient intake.”

As you get older, your food might seem blander than it used to. That’s because age affects your sense of smell and taste. But don’t reach for the saltshaker. Lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, or herbs can liven up your meals.

“Fresh herbs can do wonders to boost flavor,” Jones says. “And there are so many spices out there to try.”

Make a Grocery List

Decide what meals you’re going to make before you go shopping. “That can steer you away from just getting what’s convenient,” Jones says.

“Snacks do have their place in a meal plan. But you can’t make a meal out of snacks.”

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Here are some heart-healthy breakfast items to get you started:

  • Oatmeal
  • Eggs
  • High-fiber cereal with at least 3-5 grams of fiber per serving
  • Buckwheat or other whole grains
  • Berries or other fruit
  • Nuts or no-sugar nut butters

Read the nutrition facts label on any packaged food you get. Choose items without too much sodium or added sugar. And try to stay away from anything made with partially hydrogenated oils. Those can have unhealthy trans fats in them, Jones says.

And look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark. That signals heart-healthy packaged foods that have to meet certain nutrition requirements.

Is There a 'Best' Diet to Follow?

Don’t get too hung up on a single food, nutrient, or diet plan. The most important thing, Jones says, is to up the overall quality of your diet.

But there are some healthy eating plans with research to back them up. That includes the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and Mediterranean diets. Both focus on healthy, natural foods that have the support of the American Heart Association.

Which Foods Should You Avoid?

Almost all food gets processed in some way. But studies show your chances of cardiovascular disease go up if you eat a lot of ultra-processed food. These foods usually don’t have much nutritional value, but they come with lots of added ingredients, like sweeteners, oils, or sodium.

Limit foods like:

  • Sweet and salty packaged snacks
  • Soda and sugary drinks
  • Frozen meals
  • Foods with hydrogenated oils
  • White bread

You’ll also want to go easy on processed meats. That’s things like hot dogs, sausages, salami, and bacon. Depending on your medical issues, Jones says, your doctor might want you to skip these meats completely.

“Those are foods that have a lot of saturated fats that can cause more complications for your heart,” Jones says.

For more help with heart-healthy foods or meal plans, talk with your doctor or visit eatright.org or  choosemyplate.gov.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 16, 2020

Sources

Jerlyn Jones, RDN, spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

International Journal of Molecular Sciences: “Nutrition and Cardiovascular Health.”

Circulation Research: “Dietary Interventions, Cardiovascular Aging, and Disease.”

CDC: “National Center for Health Statistics: Leading Causes of Death.”

American Heart Association: “The Benefits of Beans and Legumes,” “Go Nuts (But just a little!),” “Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids,” “Know the flax (and the chia): A little seed may be what your diet needs,” “Trans Fats,” “Can Processed Foods Be Part of a Healthy Diet,” “What is the Mediterranean Diet?” “The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations.”

Circulation: “Seafood Long-Chain n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association.”

National Institute of Aging: “How Smell and Taste Change as You Age.”

USDA ChooseMyPlate: “10 Tips: Choosing Whole-Grain Foods.”

BMJ: “Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study.”

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