Despite your good intentions, you may be eating or drinking in a way that actually harms your ticker. Here's how to turn those habits around to protect your heart in the long run.

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If you're looking to sum up a heart-healthy diet in one sentence it's this: "Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, fish, nuts and legumes and low in salt, sugar and saturated fats," says Linda Van Horn, Ph.D., RD, chief of the nutrition division in the department of preventative medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and an American Heart Association (AHA) volunteer.

What you eat is just one part of a heart smart lifestyle, and if fits along with staying physically active, keeping blood pressure and sugar and cholesterol in check, quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight, says Van Horn. But despite your good intentions, you may be eating or drinking in a way that actually harms your ticker. Here's how to turn those habits around to protect your heart in the long run.

1. You're trying to totally avoid fat

Egg Salad & Avocado Toasts with Capers
Credit: Jason Donnelly

Decades ago, there was a call to cut back on fat. "We thought all fat was bad. Americans decreased fat in foods, we cut back on all fats, even healthier choices. Food manufacturers decreased fat in foods but added sugar and carbohydrates instead," explains Isabel Maples, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The result wasn't as intended: "That did not help lower heart disease," she says.

Right now, the AHA recommends limiting saturated fats in the diet, which are plentiful in foods like fatty meat, butter and cheese. (It's recommended that someone eating 2000 calories would stick to 13 grams of sat fat per day.) However, that does not mean avoiding all fat—you need fat in your diet. Focus on consuming foods that contain monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA).

Both types of fat help lower levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, which overtime can gum up arteries to restrict blood flow. Fat also helps your body absorb fat soluble vitamins A, E, D and K, provide energy and support cell growth, says Van Horn. "Instead of a low total fat intake, it is recommended that saturated-fat rich foods are replaced with heart-healthy fats," she says.

You can increase the MUFA and PUFA in your diet with these three tips, says Maples:

  • Eat fish or seafood twice a week.
  • Consume a handful of your favorite nuts as a mid-afternoon snack
  • Use olive oil instead of butter when you cook
  • Add avocado to your sandwich or salad

2. You're cutting carbs—and avoiding whole grains

Right now, it's trendy to try to eliminate as many carbohydrates from your diet as possible and eat keto or very low carb. But when you remove or severely limit a macronutrient (e.g. fat, protein or carbohydrate), you'll also be taking out the healthy stuff. And with carbs, whole grains are often first to go. Unfortunately, these are packed with good-for-you fiber, a nutrient that plays an important role in heart health.

"Fiber in whole grains like oats and barley produce short-chain fatty acids that lower LDL or "bad" cholesterol," says Van Horn. Eating more fiber from whole grains means you'll also get B vitamins, you'll be more likely to stay more regular in the bathroom department and it can even help you eat fewer calories overall if you're looking to lose or maintain your weight, she adds (read more on that here).

In a research review in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2020, healthy adults who consumed whole grains instead of refined grains improved measures of cholesterol, blood sugar and inflammatory markers. The authors of this study said that one of the limitations was that their findings did not show that eating whole grains would prevent cardiovascular disease and so it shouldn't be a treatment for it. Still, it's clear that these foods—the farro and freekeh, whole-grain pasta and oats—can help decrease the risk factors that may harm your heart. A past meta-analysis has shown that for each serving of whole grains eaten per day correlates to a 9% lower risk of heart disease.

3. You go easy on the saltshaker

Arugula & Potato Salad with Herbs
Credit: Jason Donnelly

No, this isn't exactly a call to start strongly salting the foods that you make at home. It is a call to pay more attention to the big hitters in your salt intake: And those are the packaged foods you buy. As Maples points out, 70% of the sodium that you eat comes from packaged and prepared foods, most notably chicken and beef dishes, Mexican dishes, pasta, pizza, yeast breads and condiments. "Only a small part is the sodium that's naturally present in foods and the sodium we add to food at the table or in cooking," says Maples. So, if your focus is only on the saltshaker, there may be some more work to be done.

Consuming a high-sodium diet increases the risk of high blood pressure—something that half of adults in the US have, according to the AHA. High blood pressure means that your heart has to exert more force to pump blood through your body. Overtime, high blood pressure will damage artery walls and it's a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

If you have a high tolerance for salt, it's possible to retrain your taste buds to be satisfied on less, says Maples. She recommends balancing salty foods with those that are not as salty. For instance, if you're consuming a pasta dish, you might throw in some steamed broccoli to bulk it up and cut the salt. Also try to reduce portions. So, says Maples, if you're having pizza night, eating two slices instead of your normal three "will reduce your sodium intake by one-third". And don't forget salt-free herbs and spices! They help add tons of flavor, sans the salt.

Also realize that potassium essentially helps balance out the effects of sodium on your body. A good way to increase potassium intake is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. (There are certain ones that tend to be higher in potassium, but focusing on your favorites will get you the amount of this mineral your body needs.)

4. You're skipping meals

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Something happens when you skip a meal: You're bound to get hungry later. "So many of the people that I see tell me that they snack more than they want to," says Maples. As often as you hear to nibble on veggies, those snacks are usually sweets or salty foods and frequently happen late at night. "When we look at their diets, it's not unusual for them to also skip meals," she says. If you stick to regular and (somewhat) scheduled snacks, cravings for these types of foods can disappear, and it's more likely that you'll eat a more nutritious diet, too.

5. You're drinking alcohol for your heart health

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Credit: Andrea Mathis, M.A., R.D.N., L.D.

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There's long been a thought that drinking red wine was one of the factors responsible for long life and good health. Unfortunately, though, it may not deserve its heart-healthy reputation. "No research has proved a cause-and-effect link between drinking alcohol and better heart health," notes the AHA.

In a study in The Lancet on nearly 600,000 current drinkers who had no history of heart disease, half of those drank more than seven drinks per week. For those people who had more than seven weekly drinks, their risk of death from stroke, coronary disease and heart failure also rose. However, cutting the amount you drink to less than seven drinks per week could increase your life expectancy anywhere from six months to five years depending on how much you currently imbibe. As the AHA notes, too much alcohol raises levels of triglycerides, which are a type of fat in your blood, and combined with a high LDL number, can increase your risk of heart disease.

If you do drink, stick with moderation, which is no more than one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men. And, sip because it enhances a meal—don't start drinking for any perceived health benefit.