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What is a heart-healthy diet?

A heart-healthy diet is a diet that contains foods that can help reduce the chances of blocked arteries that can cause heart disease. These foods help lower the bad cholesterol (LDL), blood pressure and blood sugars, and reduce body weight. A good heart-healthy diet includes foods that contains omega-3 fatty acids, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. These foods include fish, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and low-fat foods that do not contain trans fats.

To lower your risk of heart disease, your diet should be:

  • Low in saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are found in some meats, dairy products, baked goods and deep-fried and processed foods. Trans fats are found in some fried and unprocessed foods. Both types of fat raise your low density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol level.
  • High in omega-3 fatty acids. Foods high in omega-3s include fish and olive oil.
  • High in fiber, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. A diet rich in these elements helps lower LDL cholesterol as well as provides nutrients that may help protect against heart disease.
  • Low in salt and sugar. A low-salt diet can help manage blood pressure, while a low-sugar diet can help prevent weight gain and control diabetes and pre-diabetes.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer among women and men in the United States, but luckily, one of the best ways to protect your heart and reduce your risk is by eating a heart-healthy diet. Many risk factors increase your chances of developing heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and being overweight, so if you're not already taking good care of your heart, now's the time to start.

Here are five steps to get you on the right track.

  1. Load up on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These three factors are the keys to a heart-healthy diet. Balance your meals with a mix of these high-fiber foods, and feel free to include legumes and nuts as well. Fiber helps regulate blood pressure and keeps you feeling full longer. Aim for 4 1/2 cups of fruits and veggies a day and at least 3 ounces (oz) of whole grains.
  2. Watch unhealthy fat and cholesterol. Limiting the amount of saturated and trans fats you eat can help you lower your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of coronary artery disease. Choose healthy fats like those found in olive oil, canola oil and trans fat-free margarine instead of the ones in butter, creamy sauces, hydrogenated margarine and shortening. Look for monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, like the ones found in healthy oils, nuts, seeds, soy (tofu) and seafood.
  3. Reduce your sodium intake. Too much sodium can result in high blood pressure. Start by reducing the amount of salt you use as a seasoning when you cook, then begin paying attention to how much sodium is in the prepared foods you eat, like canned soup.
  4. Go with low-fat protein. Protein is an important part of your diet, but some types are better than others. Stay away from full-fat dairy products, egg yolks, fatty meats and cold cuts. Instead, opt for low-fat dairy, egg whites, lean meat, poultry, fish and legumes. Try starting a Meatless Monday tradition with your family and substitute plant protein for animal protein to reduce your fat and cholesterol intake.
  5. Make a meal schedule. Knowing what to eat and what to avoid is just the beginning of maintaining a heart-healthy diet. To ensure that you stick to the plan, create a meal schedule for your household once a week. Choose heart-healthy recipes and add the ingredients you need to buy to your shopping list. This not only can help ensure a healthy diet, but it could also lower your grocery bills.

A heart healthy diet is one that is balanced in calories and includes healthy amounts of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and heart healthy fats. Trans fats (found in margarines, fried foods and those containing "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil") and saturated fats (found in red meats, butter, cheese and whole milk dairy products) raise the low density lipoprotein (LDL) (bad) cholesterol and should be limited to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Replacing these fats with modest amounts of heart healthy oils including olive, canola, corn, safflower and sunflower oils, in addition to nuts and peanut butter, is recommended. Striving for at least five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables each day is beneficial, as is at least two servings of fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines) each week. Other healthy lean protein sources are chicken, turkey, egg whites, nuts, legumes and beans, and extra lean red meat. Whole grains (such as whole grain bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, bulgur, oatmeal, etc.) should replace refined carbohydrates (especially white bread, white rice, crackers, candy, tonic and other sweets.)

There is a lot of agreement about how you should eat to protect your heart. Research from the past several decades clearly shows that you can build a heart-healthy diet with six basic building blocks—arranged in the right proportions.

  1. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. In fact, in a typical meal, half your plate should be fruits and vegetables.
  2. Eat more whole grains. Grains and starches together should fill about 1/4 of your plate for most meals.
  3. Choose heart-healthy proteins. A healthy portion will take up about 1/4 of your plate.
  4. Choose unsaturated fats and oils.
  5. Select low-fat dairy products or dairy alternatives.
  6. Limit your sodium (salt), sugar and alcohol.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.