Clasp your hands together. That’s the size of your heart.
It beats about 100,000 times each day, pumping 1.5 gallons of blood through your body every minute, yet weighs just 10 ounces. It brings oxygen and other vital nutrients to your cells, keeping the whole body functioning properly.
Here’s another statistic: heart disease kills one in four people in the United States every year.
Even more sobering is the knowledge that nearly a third of those deaths are preventable. You can’t change your age or medical history—but you can make dietary and lifestyle changes that can dramatically reduce your risk.
Following a heart-healthy diet can fight high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity—all risk factors for heart disease, and lower your likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and even some cancers. Here’s what you need to know about what to eat to keep your ticker in good shape.
Recommendations for a heart-healthy diet
As with anything, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to eating for heart health. Everyone has different goals and needs, and so meal plans look different from person to person.
That said, the American Heart Association (AHA) has five key, general recommendations, which you can customize your personal meal plan. (Just remember to check with your doctor before making any big changes to your diet.)
Eat more fruits and vegetables
When mom used to nag you about finishing your baby carrots, she knew what she was talking about. Fruits and veggies are low in calories, rich in nutrients, and super filling.
Both are also high in fiber, which studies have shown can cut your risk of developing heart disease—and they’re among the best sources of essential vitamins and minerals. Getting enough antioxidants, potassium, folate, and vitamins A and C through your diet is key to overall wellness and cardiovascular health, according to the AHA.
AHA recommendation: Shoot for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and try to choose a variety to get a wide array of vitamins and minerals.
Try whole grains
Whole grains are high in fiber, but that’s only part of the reason why experts so often recommend them for improving cardiovascular health.
Three vitamins and minerals typically found in whole grains—B vitamins, magnesium, and selenium—have huge benefits for the heart. B complex vitamins, which are important for converting food into energy, can also lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. Magnesium can restore blood vessels’ ability to pump blood into areas that need it most, and some studies suggest that selenium might have properties that protect the heart from disease.
Limit unhealthy fats
For decades, fat has been public enemy No. 1. It was blamed for obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease, and a litany of other illnesses, and doctors and nutritionists cautioned dieters to limit how much they ate. Low-fat or fat-free foods were touted as “healthier,” even though many manufacturers added tons of sugar, salt, or artificial flavors to make these products taste better.
Though nutrition experts have recently changed their tune on dietary fat, most heart-healthy diets still recommend limiting certain kinds—in particular saturated fats and trans fats.
Often found in red meat, dairy, and processed foods, saturated fat raises blood cholesterol, which can increase your risk of heart disease. Recently, however, a controversial study questioned this widely held belief, and the jury’s still out on the effects of saturated fat.
The AHA recommends keeping saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of your total calories—that’s less than 13 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet. Keep an eye out for the following foods, which the Harvard School of Public Health says are highest in saturated fat:
- Grain-based desserts
- Dairy desserts
- Chicken dishes
- Sausage, franks, bacon, and ribs
- Mexican mixed dishes
- Beef dishes
- Reduced fat milk
- Pasta dishes
- Whole milk
- Eggs and egg dishes
- Nuts and seeds
- Fried potatoes
You also want to stay away from trans fats, sometimes called partially hydrogenated oil. They’re often added during the manufacturing process to keep foods from spoiling. They also raise bad cholesterol and lower the good kind—and an imbalance of the two can trigger heart disease.
According to the AHA, you should avoid trans fats entirely—so be wary of these foods:
- Processed baked goods
- Ready-made frosting
- Fried foods
- Frozen meals
- Canned biscuits and pizza doughs
- Non-dairy coffee creamer
But there are also "good fats" experts do recommend working into your diet. Research shows that eating foods rich in unsaturated fats can improve your cholesterol and decrease your risk of heart disease, as well as balance blood sugar and insulin levels. The following foods are rich in unsaturated fats:
- Olive oil
- Macadamia nuts
- Peanut butter
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Chia seeds
Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, are particularly good for you—they can reduce the risk of irregular heartbeat, slow the buildup of plaque in the arteries, lower blood pressure, lower the likelihood of stroke, and protect against heart disease overall.
Some plant-based foods—chia seeds, for example—contain omega-3s, but fatty fish like the following are the best sources, according to the University of Michigan:
AHA recommendation: Limit saturated and avoid trans fats, and replace them with unsaturated fats whenever possible. Eat more fish to boost your intake of omega-3s, too!
Choose the right protein
Because meat and other animal products are often high in saturated fat and cholesterol, you’ll need to be especially conscious of which proteins you eat. Lean meats like chicken and turkey, plant-based proteins like lentils and chickpeas, and fatty fish are all great choices.
Here’s a rundown of the most heart-healthy protein options:
AHA recommendation: Eat at least two servings of fish rich in omega-3s per week and no more than 6 ounces of lean meat per day.
Cut back on sodium
Americans love salt—the latest data shows that more than 90 percent of us eat too much of it. That’s bad news for our collective health, because overdoing it on sodium can raise blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease.
While most experts agree that excess sodium isn’t good, the jury is still out on how much is too much. Studies have been mixed—some suggest limiting sodium is a good thing for nearly everyone, while others propose that moderate levels might hit a “sweet spot” for your health.
AHA recommendation: Consume no more 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. However, the most recent CDC-issued dietary guidelines say up to 2,300 milligrams is fine.
Other lifestyle changes that can improve heart health
Unsurprisingly, there’s more to a healthy lifestyle than what you eat. For maximum results, consider making the following changes in addition to switching to a heart-healthy diet.
Get more exercise
Physical activity has so many benefits: it strengthens your bones and muscles, helps control your weight, boosts your mood, reduces your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases, and keeps your heart in good shape. Slowly begin adding more exercise into your daily routine, maybe starting with 10 minutes of walking per day, then working your way up to 30 minutes of speed walking, and finally building up to a higher-intensity workout like jogging or weightlifting.
AHA recommendation: If you want to lower your cholesterol or blood pressure, exercise for 40 minutes at moderate intensity at least three to four times each week.
Smoking is currently the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, and can lead to cancer, stroke, respiratory disease, and heart disease. If you’re a smoker, quitting could perhaps be the single most important thing you can do for your health.
AHA recommendation: Stop smoking cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products.
Cut back on alcohol
You don’t necessarily have to say goodbye to chardonnay forever—but you might want to stick to one glass. Though heavy drinking can lead to liver disease, cancer, and weakening of the heart muscle, moderate alcohol consumption might actually have some benefits. A few drinks every now and then has been linked to the prevention of heart disease, though not enough research has been done for experts to understand exactly how this works.
AHA recommendation: Drinking in moderation is best—about one drink per day for women and one to two drinks per day for men.
With these guidelines, you have all the tools you need to start customizing your own heart-healthy diet. Check out U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of the best heart-healthy diets for more ideas.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho, Paul Delmont