Heart disease is probably pretty high on your list of dangerous things you’d like to avoid. (It’s right up there with cancer and car accidents.) But despite how serious heart disease is, most of us don’t know the best way to take care of our hearts. If you have even a vague idea of which foods are bad for your heart, you probably have a leg up on most Americans. In the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death. And most of us know we should exercise regularly and eat healthfully. But few of us know the specifics of what we should be eating every day and which foods we should only occasionally indulge in.
If you want to protect your heart (and know more about your heart health than most other Americans), you need to do more than avoid the pizza place and frozen meals. When you plan your meals, you’ll make healthier choices if you look out for heart-healthy foods. And you’ll make smarter decisions if you know the simple ways your diet can help you avoid heart disease. Ready to get on your way toward a heart-healthy lifestyle? Read on.
1. Eating less red meat
Everybody loves their burgers and steaks. But experts say you should eat less red meat if you’re trying to prevent heart disease. The reason why? Red meat contains saturated fat. That’s the kind that can build up on your artery walls. According to a nutritionist from the Harvard School of Public Health, the kinds of fat you eat are more important than how much fat you eat. Trans fats (such as vegetable shortening or margarine) have adverse effects. So do saturated fats, which you should replace with poly- and mono-unsaturated fat. Still with us? In practice, what you need to do is reduce your intake of red meat. That will tip the balance of fat in your diet away from the bad kinds — and reduce your chances of developing coronary heart disease.
2. Consuming more fish
The American Heart Association notes you should eat fish once or twice a week. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids that reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Omega-3 fatty acids can decrease your triglycerides, lower your blood pressure, reduce blood clotting, reduce irregular heartbeats, and decrease your risk of stroke and heart failure. And the Mayo Clinic explains it’s not just the omega-3 fatty acids that might help your heart health. Other nutrients contained in fish can help, too. Plus, you don’t have to worry as much about mercury and other contaminants as you might think. The Mayo Clinic reports the heart-healthy benefits of eating fish outweigh the risk of exposure to contamination.
3. Reducing your sodium intake
We all know processed foods are pretty unhealthy. But what most of us don’t realize is it’s not just the fat in those foods that make them bad for us. Their high levels of sodium are also at fault. Researchers report that reducing your sodium intake will lower your blood pressure. A lower blood pressure, in turn, will reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. The upshot? You should stay mindful of how much sodium you’re consuming, and do your best to find ways to cut extra salt out of your diet.
4. Swapping dairy fat for healthier kinds of fat
Another step the Harvard study recommends to correct the balance of fats in your diet? Reducing your intake of dairy products. The Mayo Clinic explains meat and dairy “are the primary contributors of saturated fats in most diets.” The saturated fat in dairy products might not be as strongly linked to risk for heart disease as red meat. That might be because the other nutrients in dairy have preventative effects. Another group of Harvard researchers found dairy products, such as full-fat dairy milk, yogurt, butter, cheeses, and cream, don’t increase heart disease risk. But they don’t reduce your risk either. So their recommendation is to replace some of the dairy fat in your diet with calories from vegetable fat or polyunsaturated fat. That swap results in a significant decrease in your heart disease risk.
5. Eating more nuts
You might think reducing your risk of heart disease would be all about things that you can’t eat. But it’s not all bad news. The Harvard study also recommends increasing your intake of nuts, fish, soy products, and nonhydrogenated vegetable oils. The Mayo Clinic explains nuts make a great snack. They benefit your heart and reduce your chances of dying early from heart disease. That’s because they lower your levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. And eating nuts leads to lower levels of the inflammation that’s linked to heart disease.
6. Swapping animal protein for soy protein
The Cleveland Clinic notes that adding more soy to your diet is an easy way to increase your consumption of plant proteins — a swap that can lower blood pressure and offer other cardiovascular benefits. Soy foods are a good source of polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats offer a variety of different heart benefits, such as lowering your cholesterol. Soy foods also contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. And soy products contain vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, which all have healthy effects on your body.
7. Consuming more fruits and vegetables
It sounds pretty logical that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables might reduce your risk of coronary heart disease. And your doctor will probably always recommend consuming more. But an article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine explains why. People with the highest intake of fruits and vegetables showed a lower incidence of heart disease than people who ate fewer fruits and vegetables. Both green leafy vegetables and produce rich in vitamin C seemed to have the strongest protective effect against heart disease. That makes a pretty good argument for loading your grocery cart (and your plate) with fruits and veggies.
8. Drinking red wine
For years, researchers have considered what they call the French paradox. The term refers to the relatively low incidence of cardiovascular disease in the French population. That is surprising because of their relatively high intake of saturated fats. Over the years, researchers have attributed the effect to the consumption of red wine. When you drink a moderate amount of red wine, the compounds in the wine target all phases of the athersclerotic process (the process by which fat and cholesterol build up on your artery walls). As long as you don’t overdo it, you might want to talk to your doctor about adding some red wine to your diet to reduce your risk of heart disease.
9. Swapping your coffee for tea
Many of us sip a cup of coffee or tea to get going in the morning. Drinking coffee might be associated with a small increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease. But tea is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Tea has anti-inflammatory and anti-platelet effects. And while researchers don’t know exactly how tea can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, freshly brewed green or black tea “appears to be a reasonable dietary choice to consider as part of lifestyle and dietary approach to prevent heart disease.”
10. Switching to a Mediterranean diet
It can be tough to keep track of which foods you should and shouldn’t eat. Want an easier way to prevent heart disease? Just switch to a Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet, according to the Mayo Clinic, emphasizes plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. It also replaces butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil. On the Mediterranean diet, you’ll eat red meat only a few times each month. But you’ll eat poultry and fish at least twice a week. Researchers have found this diet “is an effective and feasible tool” for preventing cardiovascular disease. The reason why? This particular diet can lower your cholesterol and therefore reduce your risk of heart disease.
11. Going vegetarian
Want to take things a step further than the Mediterranean diet? Consider going vegetarian. The American Heart Association notes there’s no single vegetarian eating pattern. You can be a vegan and eat only fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds, and nuts. Or, you can be a lactovegetarian and eat plant foods, plus cheese and other dairy products. Alternately, you can be an ovo-lactovegetarian and also eat eggs. Or you can even be a semi-vegetarian and eat chicken and fish but not red meat. Vegetarian diets are usually lower in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than non-vegetarian diets. Vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some sorts of cancer.