• Heart-Healthy Eating Guidelines

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    Following a heart-healthy eating plan may seem complicated, but you can start simply by trying these eight tips for changing your diet to make your heart healthier.

    1. Eat just enough calories to support a healthy weight.
    2. Limit unhealthy fats and cholesterol.
    3. Choose healthy fats.
    4. Skip the salt and sodium.
    5. Eat more whole grains.
    6. Cut back on sugar.
    7. Get your fill of fruits and vegetables.
    8. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.


    1. Eat just enough calories to support a healthy weight. 

    Obesity increases the risk of heart disease.  Maintaining a healthy weight, or losing as little as 5-10 percent of your current weight if you are overweight, may lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

    Figuring out how to eat just enough calories to support a healthy weight can be tricky.  Consider visiting a registered dietitian to develop a flexible meal plan for your personal weight goals. Usually this involves taking a look at your eating behaviors and making small changes you can live with. In the meantime, you may want to get a head start Setting Goals and Developing a Plan. And of course, regular physical activity plays a key role in balancing what we eat.

    Don’t get lost in the numbers though. If you want to lose weight, try these easy suggestions to get started:

    • The simplest way to cut back on calories is by making your portions smaller than usual at each meal. 
    • Try to avoid having second helpings. Or at least wait 20 minutes until you decide if you’re still hungry enough to eat more.
    • Drink water, unsweetened tea or coffee with meals instead of high-calorie beverages such as soda, juices or sweet tea.
    • Limit snacking between meals, and try one of these Sensible Snack Ideas instead of traditional high-fat snack foods full of sodium.

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    2. Limit unhealthy fats and cholesterol.

    One of the most important dietary changes you can make for your heart health is to limit foods containing saturated fat and trans fat. These fats are usually solid at room temperature, like meat fat, butter or margarine. 

    Of all the fats, saturated fat increases “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol the most, and this increases risk of heart disease by promoting atherosclerosis (clogging of your arteries). Trans fat not only increases “bad” LDL cholesterol, but it decreases “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Cholesterol in foods doesn’t affect your blood cholesterol as much as saturated fat does, but it should also be limited according to the American Heart Association.  

    The American Heart Association recommends:

    Saturated Fat Less than 7 percent of total calories per day
    (Ex:  less than 14 grams per day on a 2,000-calorie diet)
    Trans Fat Less than 1 percent of total calories per day
    (Ex: less than 2 grams per day on a 2,000-calorie diet)
    Cholesterol Less than 200 in individuals with high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-cholesterol or those taking cholesterol-lowering medication

    Foods that contain saturated fat usually have trans fat and/or cholesterol. Try these easy ways to limit unhealthy fat and cholesterol:

    • Limit solid fats such as meat fat, vegetable shortening, butter and stick margarines. Tub margarines or spray margarines are less solid and are better choices since they generally have less saturated fat and trans fat.
    • Limit high-fat cuts of meat, such as Prime rib, brisket and ground beef.
    • Limit processed meats (such as sausage, pepperoni and lunch meat) to no more than 2 servings per week. 
    • Choose leaner cuts of meat, such as tenderloin (filet mignon), sirloin and pork loin. Or choose white-meat chicken and turkey.
    • Trim visible fat from meat whenever possible.
    • Switch from high-fat dairy products to nonfat or low fat (1 percent).
    • Limit egg yolks; switch to egg whites or egg substitutes.
    • Limit fast food, especially fried foods and convenience foods.
    • Limit commercially prepared baked goods like cakes, pies, cookies, etc.

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    3. Choose healthy fats.

    Not all fats are bad.  Foods containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive or canola oil, nuts, fatty fish and flaxseed, may be beneficial to your heart.  Choosing these healthier types of fat may be more important than restricting the amount of fat you consume each day.

    A Mediterranean-style diet is a way of eating that provides moderate levels of monounsaturated fat mainly from olive oil. This diet is also low in saturated fat and includes fish as well as many fruits and vegetables. Eating this way has been shown to have a protective effect on the heart.

    Polyunsaturated fats are also important for heart health. Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat found mainly in fatty, cold-water fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring) and some plant sources such as flaxseed. Omega 3 fatty acids help prevent heart rhythm problems in certain people, which may reduce the risk of sudden death. They also help decrease triglycerides (another type of fat circulating in the blood), reduce blood pressure slightly and reduce blood clotting.

    Try these tips to replace unhealthy saturated fat with healthier mono- and poly-unsaturated fats:

    • Use only liquid oils such as olive oil and canola oil for baking and cooking needs.
    • Eat at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring) per week.
    • Eat a one-ounce serving of nuts at least 4 times per week to replace snacks high in saturated and trans fat. 
    • Add a teaspoon or two of freshly ground flaxseed to recipes for baked goods, yogurt or homemade fruit smoothies to boost omega-3 fatty acid intake.
    • Consider asking your doctor if you should take fish oil supplements or omega 3 fatty acid supplements.

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    4. Skip the salt and sodium.

    Eating a diet low in sodium helps lower blood pressure, and therefore, heart disease risk. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (or DASH) diet is a famous heart-healthy eating plan. It was developed for research to determine what combination of foods helps to lower blood pressure. The DASH diet is low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.  One part of the study compared various sodium levels to see if blood pressure was affected. The results were dramatic and showed that the lower the intake of sodium, the lower the blood pressures were for participants.

    A daily intake of 1,500 milligrams is recommended by the American Heart Association for people with heart disease.  This may seem drastic to most Americans, who generally consume more than 3,000 milligrams per day. But sodium is an acquired taste, so with persistence, it is possible to become accustomed to the taste of lower sodium foods.

    Keep in mind processed, convenience foods generally have more sodium. And chances are, they have more saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, which are more reasons to avoid them.
    Follow these general tips to help you reduce your sodium intake:

    • Try limiting meals to 400 to 500 milligrams of sodium or less.
    • Try aiming for 200 milligrams of sodium or less at snack time.
    • Put away the salt shaker. Replace it with any sodium-free spice mix, which you can keep on the table or at the stove.
    • Add flavor to foods with roasted garlic, caramelized onion, fresh herbs, citrus, wine, fruit juices and homemade chicken stock. 
    • Avoid canned foods, unless choosing a product specifically made without sodium, such as fruits, some salt-free vegetables or tomato products.
    • Limit processed, convenience foods such as frozen meals and pizzas.
    • Avoid frozen vegetables with sauces.
    • Try to eat out only once per week or even less often.
    • Limit fast foods, especially fried foods.
    • Limit cheeses; choose Swiss cheese for its low sodium content.
    • Limit commercially baked items such as breads, cakes, cookies, etc.
    • Limit condiments, such as ketchup, mustard, soy sauce and marinades.

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    5. Eat more whole grains.

    Whole grains pack a nutritious punch. They provide carbohydrate, the main fuel for our body. They also provide antioxidants and fiber. Eating a diet high in fiber—20 to 25 grams per day—can decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke by 40 to 50 percent.

    The American Heart Association recommends eating at least 3 one-ounce servings of whole grains per day. Doing so not only can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, but may help with weight maintenance, and may lower risk for other chronic diseases.

    Try these simple substitutes to benefit from whole grains:

    • Switch from white bread to wheat bread.
    • Use whole-wheat pasta instead of regular pasta.
    • Switch from white rice to brown rice, or try mixing half white rice, half brown rice.
    • Eat a high-fiber, whole-grain cereal such as oatmeal or bran flakes.
    • Add oats or use half whole-wheat flour in homemade baked goods.
    • Experiment and cook whole grains such as quinoa, bulgar or barley. They can be cooked as a hot side dish in place of rice, or cooked then served cold in salads. They can also be added to homemade soups.

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    6. Cut back on sugar.

    Foods high in sugar provide calories, but rarely provide other healthful nutrients. In addition, sugar-containing foods, mainly sodas, have been associated with increasing rates of obesity. Therefore, the American Heart Association recommends reducing added sugars in foods to no more than half of the discretionary calorie allowance, which is outlined in the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  

    • For most American women this is no more than 100 calories (6 teaspoons) per day.
    • For most American men this is no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons) per day.

     Here are some simple ways to reduce sugar in your diet:

    • Limit regular soda to no more than 36 ounces (450 calories) per week. One 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons) from sugar.
    • Switch from regular soda or fruit juices to no-calorie, diet beverages.
    • Limit use of added sugar or switch to non-nutritive sweeteners (Nutrasweet, Splenda, Truvia, etc.)
    • Try limiting sweets by having only one or two “family dessert nights” every week; for example, only on Fridays and Saturdays.


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    7. Get your fill of fruits and vegetables.

    Parents have been saying it for decades, “Eat your fruits and vegetables.” They know what they’re talking about. Research has shown eating fruits and vegetables decreases the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Up to 6 servings per day appears to provide the most benefit.

    One reason is that they contain fiber, which protects against heart disease. Eating fiber also protects against type 2 diabetes. And eating soluble fiber (oats, beans and apples, for example) may help people who already have diabetes control their blood sugar better.     

    Fruits and vegetables are also usually rich in potassium. Studies, such as the DASH diet studies, have shown potassium may play a role in lowering blood pressure, and therefore, lowering the risk of heart disease.

    Another reason to eat fruits and vegetables is that they provide phytosterols, such as plant stanol and sterol esters. These are natural plant compounds that help lower cholesterol. Phytosterols are found naturally in small amounts in fruits and vegetables, vegetable oils, nuts and whole grains. Many foods, such as some soft tub margarines, are now fortified with stanol or sterol esters to help lower cholesterol.

    Boost your fruit and vegetable intake with these tips:

    • Aim for at least 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day, as recommended by the American Heart Association. 
    • Vary the kinds of fruits and vegetables you eat, choosing different colors.
    • Green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts may lower the risk of heart disease the most.
    • Wash and cut up fruits and vegetables and place them in clear view within your refrigerator for easy access.
    • If you have high cholesterol, consider consuming 2 grams of phytosterols each day, as recommended by The National Cholesterol Education Program . To get this amount, it is necessary to eat foods fortified with stanol or sterol esters.  Sometimes several servings per day are necessary to get 2 grams, so read the directions on the labels of foods.

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    8. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.

    Drinking alcohol may help protect against heart disease. Adults who consume one to two alcoholic beverages a day appear to have a lower risk of coronary artery disease.  And it doesn’t appear to matter whether you drink wine, beer or liquor. But moderation is key. Consuming more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men increases the risk for high blood pressure,  stroke, some types of cancer and dependence on alcohol.

    • One drink is 12 fluid ounces of regular beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.
    • Check with your doctor before drinking alcohol. Some medications can interact with alcohol. And some individuals with specific medical conditions should not drink at all.
    If you don’t currently drink alcohol, it is not recommended to begin drinking alcohol for health benefits alone, since there are many other health risks due to drinking alcohol.

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