There’s a lot you can do to keep your heart well.
Exercise done regularly is key. So are stress relief and not smoking. But many cardiologists and health experts say diet is especially important for heart health.
“If I could pick one thing for people to do to reduce their risk of heart disease and heart disease-related death, it would be changing how they eat,” says Kim Williams Sr., MD, chief of cardiology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and a past president of the American College of Cardiology.
Adjusting your diet may sound like a tall order. But small changes add up. “That’s especially true when you make them part of your everyday lifestyle,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, a preventive cardiologist in New York and a longtime volunteer expert for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement. Here are three simple but powerful changes to make today.
Eat More Whole Foods at Every Meal
Heart experts agree: The less processed food in your diet, the better.
Williams recommends adopting a whole food-rich vegan diet that’s free of all animal proteins. (He eats this way himself, too.) Steinbaum favors a Mediterranean-style diet that’s rich in vegetables and healthier fat sources, like olive oil, but also allows for fatty fish, dairy, and lean protein like chicken.
The American Heart Association recommends mostly eating whole fruits, vegetables, legumes (like beans and chickpeas), nuts, whole grains (think oatmeal or whole grain rice), and lean vegetable or animal protein, especially fish. These foods are high in vitamins and other nutrients, like fiber, and free of additives like sugar.
“They can help lower LDL [aka “bad”] cholesterol, which is a major driver of heart disease and heart attacks,” says Sean P. Heffron, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health.
Skip Foods That Have Added Sugar
The good news: Whole foods are naturally free of added sugar. So if you’re loading up on them, you’re already getting less sugar than most people. It still helps to check the label of any processed food you eat for ingredients like sugar, fructose, corn syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup, Steinbaum says.
A 2014 JAMA Internal Medicine study found that people who got 25% or more of their calories from added sugar were more than twice as likely to die of heart disease, compared to those whose diets were less than 10% added sugar (by calories). Researchers aren’t sure exactly why this is. But sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda, raise blood pressure. Sugar also increases the amount of insulin your pancreas makes and can contribute to weight gain and inflammation, which make you more likely to have diabetes. And both weight gain and diabetes increase your risk of having heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends women get no more than 100 calories from added sugar a day, and men get no more than 150 calories from added sugar daily. But when it comes to sugar, “the less you eat, the better,” Steinbaum says.
Steer Clear of Saturated Fat
Reaching a healthy weight takes stress off your cardiovascular system and reduces inflammation. But while some high-fat plans (like the keto diet) may promise fast weight loss, that doesn’t mean they’re heart-smart. In fact, every expert we interviewed for this story stressed the importance of cutting down on saturated fat (which mainly comes from animal sources like red meat, high-fat dairy, and pork, but is also in coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil).
“I tell patients to ask themselves, does it walk on land? If so, try to reduce how much of it you’re eating,” Heffron says. Williams points out that multiple studies show that eating animal protein raises the risk of early death from heart attack and other causes. And he notes that those studies also show that substituting plant protein for animal protein reduces the risk of heart-related death.
You may have heard coconut oil touted as a weight loss aid and health booster. But those benefits aren’t proven. Coconut oil is one of the few plant sources of saturated fat. If you choose to eat it, opt for very small amounts.
Most of the time, it’s best to choose unsaturated fats, which lower cholesterol instead of raising it. These include polyunsaturated fats, which are found in foods like fish, flaxseed, walnuts, and soybean oil. They also include monounsaturated fats, such as avocado, avocado oil, and olive oil.
The quality of your food is important, but so is the quantity. Limiting your portion sizes and sticking to no more than one healthful snack between meals can keep your weight in check, Steinbaum says. That lowers your risk of heart disease and heart attack.
One simple way to make sure you’re not overdoing it is to keep track of what you eat and drink. “You can use a paper journal or an app on your phone or computer,” Steinbaum says. “It’s so easy to say, ‘I don’t know why I’m gaining weight,’ or ‘I can’t remember what I ate.’ Tracking can provide answers and keep you mindful.”
Not seeing the changes you’d like? Consider sharing your food journal with your doctor or a dietitian. “Knowing where you’re at can help you and your health care team figure out your next steps,” Steinbaum says. Dietitians can make sure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs, and they can give you tips on making the transition to a heart-healthy diet something you can stick with for life.