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Published on December 15, 2020

Eating to Ward Off Heart Disease

Heart Healthy Foods

Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in the United States, and many Americans could avoid it by making a few simple changes in their eating habits.

Why does your diet matter so much to your heart?

Mainly because your blood cholesterol matters. Your food choices can help lower the amount of the cholesterol in your blood -- and your risks of heart disease and stroke -- or send that level soaring. (Almost all heart attacks and strokes start when cholesterol sticks to the lining of blood vessels.) Your food choices will also determine whether you get the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that can keep your heart and arteries strong and protect them from damage.

The American Heart Association offers the following diet guidelines to help prevent heart disease:

  • Switch to a diet rich in "good fats" and low in "bad fats." Fewer than 30 percent of your daily calories should come from fat and fewer than 7 percent should come from saturated fat. This is the most important guideline, because nothing in your food will raise the level of cholesterol in your bloodstream faster than saturated fat. Some tips on identifying saturated fat are: It is solid at room temperature, and the main dietary sources of it are animal products including beef, pork lard, poultry fat, butter, cream, and whole-milk dairy products. Some plant foods, such as coconut and palm oils, contain saturated fat, too.

In contrast, omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat found in nuts, flaxseed, and many types of fish, may help prevent the types of blood clots that can cause heart attacks and strokes. A number of studies have found that eating fish or shellfish once a week can cut the risk of dying from a sudden stroke or heart attack by more than 50 percent. The AHA recommends eating at least two servings a week of fish high in omega-3s -- such as salmon, tuna, sardines or lake trout.

  • Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Many types of produce are rich in vitamins C, beta-carotene, and other antioxidants that may help prevent hardening of the arteries. Green leafy vegetables, peas, beans, and some fruits also contain folic acid, a nutrient that lowers the risk of heart attack or stroke in people who already have cholesterol building up in their arteries. Also, many fruits and vegetables contain potassium, a mineral that both protects arteries and lowers blood pressure. A recent Harvard study of 43,738 men found that getting a high level of potassium reduced the risk of stroke by almost 40 percent.
  • Eat at least six servings of grains a day, so that you get 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily. By selecting fiber-rich fruits and vegetables as well as whole grain breads and cereals, nuts, peas, and beans, you'll meet this important guideline. Soluble fiber -- the kind found in oat bran, oatmeal, beans, peas, citrus fruits and strawberries -- can lower cholesterol.
  • Get no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol each day. Cholesterol, found only in animal products, is most abundant in meat, organ meats, full-fat dairy products and eggs. The American Heart Association notes that you will probably need to limit your consumption of whole eggs, since a single egg yolk contains about 200 mg of cholesterol. Egg whites, on the other hand, are an excellent source of protein and have no cholesterol or fat.
  • Limit your sodium consumption to 1,500 milligrams each day. According to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 70 percent of the US population is sensitive to salt. For them, cutting back could lead to a significant drop in blood pressure. To find out if you're salt sensitive, try a low-sodium diet (less than 1,500 mg per day) for two weeks and see if your pressure dips. Cutting back on sodium also requires reading labels on canned and other processed foods, which can be loaded with sodium.

Can diet help treat existing heart trouble?

If your heart has already shown signs of stress, a healthy diet is more important than ever before. Consider the remarkable results of a French study recently published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association. The study found that heart attack survivors on a so-called Mediterranean diet (rich in fruits, vegetables, cereals, and beans) were 50 percent to 70 percent less likely than patients on a typical Western diet to suffer another heart attack. The Mediterranean diet provided more fiber, vitamins, and monounsaturated fatty acids than did the Western diet and was also significantly lower in total fat.

What's the link between obesity and heart disease?

Extra weight can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, all of which make heart disease much more likely. On average, overweight people develop heart disease about three years earlier than people of normal weight; extremely obese people tend to be about seven years ahead of schedule. Moreover, normal-weight adults with heart disease can expect to live to age 78, four years longer than obese patients. In endeavoring to control your weight, remember to combine your low-fat eating plan with regular exercise, which is another important measure for preventing heart disease.

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