Tips for a Heart Healthy Diet

February is American Heart Month.

Heart disease is a major American health issue. The facts bear it out:

  • One person dies every 34 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease—or heart and blood vessel disease.
  • About 697,000 people in the U.S. died from heart disease in 2020. That’s one in every five deaths.
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women, and cuts across most ethnic and racial groups in the U.S.

Eye-opening statistics such as these from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlight how important it is to take the possibility of heart disease seriously. 

Thankfully, there are some known strategies you can use to prevent heart disease. Avoiding smoking and tobacco, managing stress, getting the right amounts of sleep and exercise, and staying atop the right health screenings for your age are all heart-smart moves.

But one of the best things you can do is to pay attention to your food intake, and develop a heart-healthy diet. 

This February and throughout the year, follow these tips for a heart healthy diet. 

Fruits and vegetables help protect you from heart disease.
Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, which help prevent heart disease.

You Are What You Eat, After All

Eat a heart healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables

There are several key elements to a heart-healthy diet, including watching what you do (and don’t) eat, and being mindful of overall food consumption habits.

For starters, eat more fruits and vegetables.They can help you maintain a heart-healthy diet, and add more flavor to your meals. Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, all of which can protect your heart. 

Not to mention, they’ll help lower your blood pressure, regulate blood sugar and help ward off cancer and strokes. A diet rich in apples, berries, oranges, apricots, broccoli, carrots and kale goes a long way toward helping your heart.

Adding fruit to your breakfast is a tasty way to start your day; veggie courses can add a savory tone to your dinners. Both can help fill you up more healthily so you cut back on higher-calorie food. (Don’t fill up on bread instead!)

Whole grains and lean proteins help

Whole grains are smart to eat, too. They’re rich in nutrients and can help lower your cholesterol. Think oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice, whole-grain pasta, high-fiber cereals and 100% whole-wheat bread. Choose these over less healthy grain products like white bread, egg noodles, muffins, or frozen waffles. Your blood pressure will thank you.

When it comes to proteins, aim for low-fat and lean options. Pick skinless chicken breasts, pork loin, shrimp and lean cuts of beef instead of fattier cuts or fried alternatives. 

If you like fish, you’re in luck. White-fleshed fish like tilapia or halibut are high in protein, and cold-water fish like salmon, tuna and sardines are full of Omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower your blood fats. 

On the dairy side, things like Greek yogurt, skim milk and low-fat cottage cheese provide heart-healthy proteins. For dry goods, stock up on nuts, seeds, beans, peas and lentils.

Also important? Knowing what not to eat

Key things to watch out for: saturated and trans fats, and sodium. Highly prevalent in many of the processed foods found on our supermarket shelves, none of these should be eaten in abundance.

One of the most important things you can do to maintain a heart-healthy diet is to limit your intake of saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are found in animal products and should be eaten in moderation, as they can raise your cholesterol and increase chances of heart disease. 

Some foods are particularly high in saturated fats, like red meat, salami, butter and ice cream. Be mindful of your steak intake.

Trans fat is worse. It increases your low-density lipoprotein LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and reduces your high-density lipoprotein HDL cholesterol (the one you want.) Trans fat is found in a lot of processed foods in the form of partially hydrogenated oil. Watch out for this in frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, commercial baked goods, fried foods, margarine, non-dairy creamer and more.

The key is to focus on healthy fats: olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed oils, fatty fish. Avocados, yes. Bacon? Not so much. 

Another food to limit: sodium. High levels of sodium can lead to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease. There’s a lot of sodium in processed meats, like cold cuts and canned soups. 

Try flavoring foods with herbs and spices, not just salt, and mixing in some nut butter sandwiches for your lunches to help limit your sodium intake.

How you eat matters, too

Besides thinking about what types of foods to eat and avoid, focus on portion size, too. Eating too much leads to weight gain, which can increase your risk of heart disease. So cutting down on portion size can help. 

But how do you reduce portion sizes without going hungry? Some tips:

  • Have smart snacks during the day – like dried fruits and nuts.
  • Fill up half your plate with vegetables.
  • Have proteins at every meal.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Try spicier foods – a little fire goes a long way.
  • Start with a soup or salad course (not bread.)
  • Trick yourself with smaller spoons or forks.

Another way to eat more wisely? Plan your meals ahead. Don’t just wing it for dinner—you’ll get too much food. How many times have your eyes been bigger than your stomach at the store or on a delivery app? How much money have you wasted this way, too?

Think about picking one day a week to cook meals for a few days, and be diligent about eating your leftovers. 

One fun idea? Order a fruit and vegetable box to be delivered to your home, and plan your meals around it. You’ll get a ton of fresh, healthy foods for a lot cheaper than the grocery store, 

And who knows? You just may discover a long-dormant love for fennel or persimmons.