Your diet is one of the most controllable risk factors for preventing heart disease. Starting a heart healthy diet begins with knowing which foods to limit and which foods to increase.
Foods to Limit
Foods to limit for heart health include certain fats, cholesterol and sodium. There are four main types of fat: saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fat. Saturated fat and trans fat increase the risk of coronary artery disease by raising cholesterol levels in your blood. Major sources of saturated fat include beef, butter, cheese, milk, and coconut and palm oils, while trans fat is found in some deep-fried fast foods, bakery products, packaged snack foods, margarines and crackers.
The nutrition facts panel is the label placed on most pre-packaged foods that allows you to determine the amount of calories and nutrients in one serving of food. It can also help you choose foods lower in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. By using the nutritional facts panel you can compare similar foods and choose the food with the lower combined saturated and trans fats and the lower amounts of cholesterol and sodium.
Foods to Increase
Heart healthy eating isn't only about eliminating or limiting unhealthy foods. A heart healthy diet also requires increasing foods that are good for your heart. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, may decrease your risk of arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), decrease triglycerides (a type of fat in the body), lower blood pressure and decrease the growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque. Atherosclerotic plaque is the buildup of fat, cholesterol and calcium in the arteries of the body that can lead to coronary artery and vascular disease.
Fish (mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon) is a good and natural source of omega-3 fatty acids. Consider incorporating two fish meals per week into your heart healthy diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are also present in smaller amounts in flaxseed oil, walnut oil, soybean oil and canola oil, and are also found in over-the-counter supplements.
In addition to increasing omega-3 fatty acids, eat 2-3 servings of low-fat dairy products and 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily to help prevent heart disease.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of heart disease. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do for your heart health. Excess weight can lead to conditions that increase your chances of heart disease such as high blood pressure, diabetes, whereas a 10 percent decrease in weight can improve these conditions.
Exercise is also part of a heart healthy lifestyle. If approved by your physician, aim for one of the current exercise recommendations:
- Minimum of 30 minutes intensity aerobic physical activity five days a week
- Minimum of 20 minutes vigorous-intensity aerobic activity three days a week
These recommendations are suggested for healthy adults aged 18-65 years.
Small Changes Are All It Takes
By making small changes to your diet, engaging in physical activity and maintaining a healthy body weight, you will be well on your way to a heart healthy lifestyle.
For more information on cardiovascular health awareness, education, disease prevention and risk factor modification, contact the Center for Women's Cardiovascular Health at 866-662-8467.
The Center for Lifestyle Medicine can help you manage your weight, evaluate and manage your risk factors for major life-threatening chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, and recommend ways to change your behavior that suits your needs and personality. The Center for Lifestyle Medicine team includes physicians, dietitians and a health psychologist. For appointments, call 312-695-4965.
Resources at Northwestern Memorial Hospital
- Northwestern Memorial’s Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute Initiates STILETTO Study
- Illinois Women’s Health Registry Opens at Northwestern University
- Neil J. Stone, MD and Martha Gulati, MD Help to Create Guidelines that Address Preventing Cardiovascular Disease in Women
Clinical Research Trials
- Meet exceptional individuals with inspiring stories of healing.