Building a Heart-Healthy Diet

By: Celeste Sepessy, HFPN writer

What you put in your stomach may go straight to your heart. Luckily, a heart-healthy diet is an easy one to follow — it’s not a diet at all.

“A heart-healthy diet is generally characterized by a diet that’s high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low- and non-fat dairy products, legumes, lean meat and fish at least twice a week, preferably oily fish,” says Dr. Alice Lichtenstein of Tufts University. This type of diet will be low in saturated fat and trans fatty acids.

Lichtenstein, the Gershoff professor of nutrition science, emphasizes that there aren’t necessarily heart-miracle foods. Instead, she says, “It’s a general pattern and it can be adapted to different people’s personal preferences, ethnic backgrounds and religious requirements.” Constructing a heart-healthy diet is especially necessary in the U.S. today. Heart disease is the leading cause of death, accounting for 27 percent of all deaths in the country, according to the American Heart Association. But, incorporating exercise and altering one’s diet can significantly decrease the risk of having heart problems later on.

Lichtenstein says making positive changes to one’s diet is easy and flexible.Changes often require a simple substitution — low-fat milk for regular, lean cuts of meat for fatty cuts — can significantly revamp a diet. These choices will help reduce unnecessary saturated and trans fat and cholesterol, while adding more heart-healthy nutrients like fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.

Overall, it’s crucial to balance the calories consumed and calories expended. “Any food eaten in excess, even if it’s good for you, would work against energy balance and not be good,” she says. “One of the biggest challenges we’re facing is the absolute quantity because two-thirds of us are overweight or obese.” Following a heart-healthy diet will both shave pounds and reduce the risk of heart disease. And, as more and more health options become available, the transition can be an easy one.  “You can make minor adjustments in any type of cuisine, food that’s available or choices in restaurants so that you can end up getting the components of a heart-healthy diet,” she says. “Be creative.”

Requirements of a heart-healthy diet:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Keep your meals low in saturated and trans fat
  • Choose foods rich in fiber
  • Meet daily nutrient requirements

Substitute risk for wellbeing:

Do your heart a favor by making these simple substitutions:

  • Low- and non-fat dairy for full-fat dairy
  • Lean cuts of meat for fatty cuts of meat
  • Skinless poultry for poultry with skin
  • Whole fruits for juice


Prepare your heart for heart health:

According to Dr. Lichtenstein, certain preparation methods can significantly alter a meal’s dietary composition.

  • Account for what you add. “If you’re adding a lot of butter, you’re adding saturated fat so you altering the composition of the food you’re consuming,” she says.
  • Grilling may drain the pounds. “On the other hand,” Lichtenstein says, “if you grill, you would be draining fat off of the meat, so that would be good.”
  • Forget the fryer. “If you bread and deep fry it in partially-hydrogenated fat, you’re probably getting trans-fatty acids,” she says.

Hindrance and helpers: the nutrients in a heart-healthy diet:
The American Heart Association recommends certain dietary requirements and limitations to ensure a heart-healthy diet.

  1. Cholesterol: Limit cholesterol to 300 mg a day. One egg has about 215 mg — all found in the yoke.
  2. Saturated fat: This fat should make up less than 7 percent of one’s total caloric intake. Saturated fat is found in meat and animal products and is the main contributor to high blood cholesterol. 
  3. Trans fat: Limit trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of total calories. Margarine and cooking oils are a common source of this cholesterol creator.
  4. Fiber: Consume at least 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day from whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes. Fiber aids in the digestive process.
  5. Omega-3 fatty acids: Fatty fish like salmon, albacore tuna and trout contain these acids which reduce risk for cardiovascular disease. Soybeans, walnuts and flaxseeds also can contribute omega-3 fatty acids.
Building a Heart-Healthy Diet
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