Heart-Healthy Diet Guidelines

By: EatingWell Editors

Learn how to improve your heart health by watching your weight, eating more vegetables and fruits, filling up on fiber and more.

Learn how to improve your heart health by watching your weight, eating more vegetables and fruits, filling up on fiber and more.
Heart disease is the world's number one killer. It is responsible for one in every three deaths. It affects women and men with no respect for geography or economics. Other facts about heart disease:
Fact: Cardiovascular disease is America's number-one killer, claiming 900,000 lives each year.
Fact: Some heart risk factors, such as family history, are out of your control.
Fact: A healthy diet and lifestyle are your best weapons against heart disease.
To help prevent cardiovascular disease, EatingWell’s nutrition experts recommend the following heart-healthy eating guidelines.

Watch your weight

Don’t get caught up in the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet hype. The best way to maintain a healthy weight is to consume the right number of calories (from healthful foods) for your age, size and lifestyle. Familiarize yourself with the calorie contents of foods and what “reasonable” portions look like. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise (e.g., brisk walking) nearly every day. If you can’t devote 30 minutes all at once, break it up into 10-minute intervals.

Eat your vegetables—and fruits

Research links diets rich in fruits and vegetables with a lower risk for heart disease. Eat a variety, focusing on deeply colored vegetables and fruits (e.g., spinach, carrots and berries). They tend to be more nutritious than paler picks (e.g., potatoes and corn).

Fill up on fiber

Eat 25 to 30 grams of total fiber daily. There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Research shows that soluble fiber, found in oats, beans, barley and citrus, helps reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. Studies suggest that insoluble fiber—found in whole-wheat breads and cereals and vegetables—also helps protect your heart. Fiber extends the time food stays in your stomach, which may help you feel full for longer on fewer calories.

Hold the (unhealthy) fats

Keeping a cap on saturated fats, trans fats and dietary cholesterol helps reduce risk of heart disease primarily by lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol. Limit intake of saturated fats (in butter, full-fat dairy products and fatty meats) to less than 7 percent of daily calories—that’s 16 grams, if you’re consuming 2,000 calories. Avoid the artificial trans fats that are ubiquitous in fast foods and processed snacks, such as crackers and cookies. (Trans-fat tip-off: “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients list.) Try to consume no more than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol daily. Do all of this simply—no number crunching required—by replacing whole-fat dairy with skim or 1% dairy products and replacing fatty meats with lean meats, fish and plant-based proteins, such as beans.

Eat fish twice a week

Fish—especially “oily” kinds, such as salmon—are rich in the omega-3 fatty acids that, studies suggest, protect the heart. (Note: The Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency advise pregnant and nursing mothers and women who may become pregnant to avoid certain types of seafood and limit others, as most fish contain mercury, which may be harmful to developing fetuses and young children whose nervous systems are still developing.) For men and women who won’t become pregnant, the benefits of eating fish frequently far outweigh any risks associated with mercury.

Limit sugary drinks and foods

Americans’ consumption of added sugars (e.g., sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup) has risen about 25 percent in the last four decades. Added sugars are “empty” calories that supply few nutrients—and research links drinking lots of sugary beverages with weight gain.

Keep an eye on salt

Limit daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams (about 1 teaspoon). Call it supply-side salt-onomics: as salt intake increases, so does blood pressure. Your heart has to work harder to pump the added fluid your body retains from sodium. Reducing sodium intake can prevent hypertension and help reduce blood pressure if you’re taking medication.

If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation

If you consume alcohol, do so “moderately”—that’s two drinks per day for men, one drink for women. And while studies link moderate alcohol intake with reduced risk of heart disease, it doesn’t mean that teetotalers should take up drinking. Alcohol can be addictive and high intakes can contribute to hypertension.