As the saying goes, you are what you eat, and this is especially true when it comes to heart health. Dietary choices can affect your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar — all factors that can determine your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
So when it comes to diet and heart health, what foods should you be eating more, less, or not eating at all? Here’s what a Harvard nutritionist and cardiologist suggests.
Eat less: saturated fat
Saturated fats are mostly found in meats, such as beef, pork and deli meats; dairy foods such as milk, butter, cream and cheese; and tropical oils such as coconut oil and palm oil. High amounts of saturated fat are also found in many fast, processed and baked foods such as frozen pizza, desserts, hamburgers and packaged sweets.
The main health concern with saturated fats is their effect on cholesterol levels. “Consuming high amounts of saturated fat produces more ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, which can form plaques in the arteries that block blood flow and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke,” says registered dietitian Mark O’Meara, outpatient senior nutrition advisor at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Eat more: healthy fats
“In addition to avoiding saturated fat, you should increase your intake of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats,” says O’Meara. These “good” fats help lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
Sources of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, and most nuts. There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Sources of omega-3s include fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines; linseed; walnuts; and soybean oil. Many vegetable oils – such as soybean, sunflower, walnut and corn oils – are rich in omega-6.
“For heart health, it’s important to focus on eating omega-3 fats a few times a week because they’re in limited supply,” says O’Meara. “Omega-6 fats are easier to obtain because they are found in a wider range of foods.”
Follow the 80/20 rule
It is not realistic to abstain from all problem foods. It’s okay to occasionally eat chips while watching the game, treat yourself to dessert, and dine out with friends. To make sure you’re consistently following an overall heart-healthy diet while allowing yourself to live a little, adopt the 80/20 rule: eat healthy 80% of the time and save 20% of meals and snacks for fun foods. “It takes the stress out of having to eat perfectly every day,” says registered dietitian Mark O’Meara of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Weekends count, so don’t cram all your fun foods into a few days. Instead, spread them out throughout the week for the best chance of weight control.”
Eat less: refined sugar
Refined sugar is what is added to food products to improve the taste (which is why it is also known as “added” sugar). Refined sugar comes from cane, sugar beet and corn, which are processed to isolate the sugar.
Refined sugar has several indirect links to heart health. Eating too much refined sugar contributes to weight gain, the leading cause of fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes, both of which are closely linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Excess added sugar may also play a role in raising blood pressure and promoting chronic inflammation, two other factors linked to heart disease.
The best dietary sources of refined sugar include soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit-flavored drinks, flavored yogurts, cereals, crackers and sweets. But refined sugar is also found in many other processed foods, such as canned soups, cured meats, and ketchup.
The guidelines recommend that men consume no more than 36 grams (about 9 teaspoons) of refined sugar per day, roughly equal to what’s in a 12-ounce can of soda. “The best way to control your added sugar intake is to read food labels,” says O’Meara. “To get an accurate amount, multiply the grams of sugar on the label by the total number of servings.”
Eat more: plant-based foods
Science has provided strong evidence for the heart health benefits of plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).
“These diets have been consistently shown to help manage the main markers of heart disease: cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar,” says Dr. Ron Blankstein, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Heart and Vascular Center.
Both diets emphasize large amounts of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fatty fish, legumes, and nuts; olive oil as the main source of fat; and minimal amounts of red meat, dairy, and alcohol. (While whole fruits and vegetables are ideal, low-sodium canned vegetables and frozen fruits and vegetables without added sauces and cream are just as nutritious.)
“These diets offer nutrients your heart requires, such as healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and antioxidants that help fight inflammation,” says Dr. Blankstein.
Perhaps best of all, following a plant-based diet can also steer you away from unhealthy eating habits.
“If you’re eating more of these plant foods, that means you’re eating less processed foods and foods high in sugar,” says Dr. Blankstein. “And always remember that it’s never too late to start paying more attention to your diet. Don’t wait for some heart-related event to change your diet.”
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