At least three times a day, you do something that has the power to help protect your heart. You eat!
All those meals and snacks affect your weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol. And that impacts your heart.
So the next time you sit down to eat, use these seven smart tactics.
1. Make It Tasty
Surprise: Good-for-you foods can taste great! If you need to make big changes in how you eat for the sake of your heart’s health, take the time to explore your options. You might find dishes you didn’t know you would enjoy, or healthier ways to prepare your foods (like grilling instead of frying).
“When we like what we’re eating, the changes are more likely to last long-term,” says Lori Rosenthal, a dietitian at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center.
2. Serve Fruits and Vegetables First
These should be the building blocks of your diet. They should take up half your plate at each meal.
You’ll get nutrients that protect your heart.
“They’re also a great source of vitamins and minerals like potassium, which help manage blood pressure,” says Alison Massey, a registered dietitian at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Produce also means fiber, which cuts “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and is good for your blood sugar. It also helps you feel full longer, which means you eat less.
3. Try a New Grain
How about some quinoa with your chicken tonight? Or farro, a relative of wheat, with your fish?
You’ve probably heard that you should eat more whole grains.
They have fiber that helps lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. They also have key B-vitamins and minerals like iron that help carry oxygen in your blood.
You’ve got many to choose from. The switch can be simple. You could serve up brown rice instead of white, or cook steel-cut oats instead of instant oatmeal.
4. Choose Better Fats
“We all need some fat in our diet,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University. But the kind of fat you eat matters.
Limit the saturated fats that you’ll find in red meat and full-fat dairy products. Totally avoid trans fats, such as “partially hydrogenated oils” in packaged foods. These can raise your “bad” cholesterol.
You can limit your meat portion sizes, too.
“Opt for low-fat or fat-free dairy products so you reap the benefits of protein and calcium for less calories and fat,” Rosenthal says.
Polyunsaturated fats are better choices. They’re in soybean oil, walnuts, and sunflower seeds. In small amounts, they can lower your cholesterol. But they still have a lot of calories, so don’t use too much.
Also, twice a week eat oily fish like salmon or albacore tuna, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
5. Tame Your Cravings
Sugar and salt are hard to beat. You’re wired to want them. But if you get too much, it’s a problem.
Added sugar means more calories.
“Women should limit added sugar -- even ‘healthier’ choices like honey -- to no more than 6 teaspoons daily, and men, no more than 9 teaspoons,” Massey says.
Watch what you drink, too. Soda and sweetened tea are one of the main sources of added sugar in most diets.
Also, too much salt raises your blood pressure, which puts more strain on your heart. Each day limit yourself to about a teaspoon of table salt (which has 2,300 milligrams of sodium). But most of us have more than double that. And some people, including those who have heart disease, have an even smaller limit of 1,500 milligrams per day. Ask your doctor what’s right for you.
If you can cook more often, go for it. That way you control how much salt is in your food.
6. Pick Your Proteins
Red meat can be part of a heart-healthy diet, “so long as you pay attention to portion sizes, eat lean cuts, and pay attention to how it’s prepared,” Lichtenstein says. For instance, you’ll still want to keep plant foods (like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) as the majority of your meal, and eat meats that are grilled instead of fried.
Stick to less than 6 ounces of meat a day -- about the size of two decks of playing cards. And remember: You can also get protein from fish, beans, legumes, nuts, and other sources.
7. Limit Alcohol
As long as you don’t overdo it, drinking may slightly raise your "good" cholesterol and make blood clots less likely, says Misha Biden, a registered dietitian at Scripps Clinic Center for Weight Management.
Keep it “moderate,” which means up to two drinks a day for men and just one for women.
If you drink more than that, it can boost your blood pressure, a type of blood fat called triglycerides, and your chances of obesity and stroke. It also raises the risk of some cancers.
So if you don’t drink alcohol now, don't start.