An annual report earlier this year revealed that nearly half of Americans have some form of heart or blood vessel disease.1 With heart disease ranked as the leading cause of death in the United States, it’s crucial to be informed on how to eat for your heart health. Studies consistently show that a healthy diet that is low in sodium and swaps unhealthy fats for healthier alternatives can lower your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
How Can Eating Healthy Improve My Heart Health?
Learning how to eat healthy is an important step in lowering your risk of heart disease. One way to drastically improve your heart health is by eating foods rich in fiber. A diet high in fiber has been linked to lower blood pressure and a decrease in “bad” (LDL) cholesterol.
Fruits and vegetables are not only high in fiber but also contain numerous polyphenols—such as antioxidants and flavonoids—that can help reduce your risk of heart disease. In addition to adding phytonutrient-dense foods to your diet, you should work to limit foods high in trans fats, sodium, and added sugars.
The Best Foods to Eat for Your Heart Health
Curious about which foods will improve your heart health and which will increase your risk of a heart attack over time? Check below to learn which foods should become staples on your weekly grocery shopping list.
Fruits and Vegetables
Studies show that eating fruits and vegetables–especially in your 20s and 30s—can help reduce your risk of heart disease later on in life.2 While some produce (specifically avocados, persimmons, cranberries, and strawberries) work extra hard to lower LDL cholesterol and prevent plaque from building up along your artery walls, all fruits and vegetables play a part in helping you live a healthier lifestyle.
Whole grains are made from the whole-grain kernel, which includes three parts:
- Bran—the hard outer shell that contains fiber, antioxidants, and minerals
- Germ—the inner layer that includes vitamins, minerals, protein, and plant compounds
- Endosperm—the middle layer that is mostly made of carbs
Refined grains are stripped of the bran and germ and made up of the endosperm only, which leaves mostly carbs and calories.
Whole grains, on the other hand, play a huge part in lowering your risk of heart disease. Three one-ounce servings of whole grains a day can reduce your heart disease risk by 22 percent.3 Swapping out refined grain-heavy foods for their healthier, whole-grain counterparts is one of the easiest and most beneficial nutrition choices you can make to protect yourself against heart disease.
Essential fatty acids are only found in fats and cannot be made by the body. Although it can sound like a scary or “bad” word, fat is actually an essential part of a healthy diet. Fat-soluble vitamins—including vitamin A, vitamin E, and vitamin D—need fats in order to be absorbed.
Replacing unhealthy saturated and trans fats with heart-healthy unsaturated fats can reduce your risk of heart disease and keep you feeling full and energized.
Monounsaturated fats help our heart health by lowering levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. Some foods that are high in monounsaturated fats are olives, avocados, nuts, and the oils and butters derived from them—such as peanut butter and olive oil.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in a variety of plant and animal foods and are comprised of two varieties: omega-6 and omega-3. Our bodies cannot make these essential fats on their own, so we need to make sure we are getting enough polyunsaturated fats in our diet. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for many functions in the body—including helping develop and maintain your body’s cells.
Omega-6 fats help lower LDL cholesterol and are found in vegetable oils derived from corn, soybeans, sunflower, safflower, and other nuts and seeds. It’s important to get a good balance of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats. While most of us get enough omega-6 in our diets, it’s harder to get enough omega-3 because it is mainly found in oily fish.
Omega-3 fats help to reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering triglycerides, a type of fat that clogs arteries. They can also lower your heart rate, improve heart rhythm, and reduce blood pressure. Omega-3s are primarily found in oily fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, and sardines. Other good sources are ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil, soybeans, walnuts, and seeds.
Which Foods Should Be Avoided?
While it can be argued that all foods in their whole, natural form have a place in the human diet, there are some foods that can pose a risk to your heart health when consumed in excess. Learn why foods that contain trans fats, sodium, and sugar should be eaten in moderation when trying to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
You may have heard that saturated fats should be avoided at all costs because science has proven it can raise your LDL cholesterol and put you at a higher risk of heart disease. While this is mostly true, there are many misconceptions about saturated fats. As a whole, they aren’t always bad and don’t need to be entirely avoided—especially if your genes indicate that you have above-average heart health.
Trans fats, however, are universally regarded as “bad” fats among registered dietitians. While small amounts of trans fats are found naturally in animal products—like meat and milk—most trans fats are made in an industrial process. Companies add hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature and give them a more desirable texture and flavor. This process is called hydrogenation, and you’ve likely seen its final product listed in the ingredients of processed foods—typically as “partially hydrogenated oil” or some other variation.
Trans fats increase the risk of heart disease by increasing bad cholesterol and lowering HDL cholesterol4—again, that’s the “good” one. They can be found in processed foods that are deep-fried or baked, such as fast-food burgers and fries, frozen meals, sugary cereals, and baked goods like biscuits, pastries, and cakes.
Did you know that sodium is an essential part of your diet? Sodium and potassium are electrolytes that work together to balance fluid in your body so it can function properly. Sodium is found in plant foods in very small amounts, so primitive diets were deficient in sodium. Over time, humans evolved to conserve sodium. This is unfortunate for the modern-day diet where salt is added to practically every meal because excess sodium intake can cause high blood pressure.
Potassium can be found in a variety of foods, including bananas, potatoes, beans, cheese, nuts, poultry, and fish. A diet low in potassium but high in sodium is associated with higher blood pressure and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Reducing the sodium in your diet minimizes the amount of extra fluid around your heart and lungs, which makes your heart work harder and can increase your blood pressure.
To limit your sodium intake, avoid processed foods and eating out at restaurants too often. It’s important to note that while sea salt and kosher salt can be considered healthier than table salt because they are less processed, the amount of sodium is the same for every kind of salt. If you have high blood pressure or a family history of heart disease, you may want to consider reducing your sodium or adopting the DASH diet.
Sweets and Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
A 15-year study found that participants who took in 25 percent or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10 percent added sugar. In addition, regardless of the participant’s demographics (such as age, sex, physical activity level, and BMI), the odds of dying from heart disease increased simultaneously with the percentage of sugar in their diet.5
While sugar occurs naturally in fruits and dairy products, these foods contain many beneficial nutrients—such as fiber, vitamins and minerals. They don’t contribute to the health risks—such as weight gain—that added or “free” sugars present either. Fruits also provide phytochemicals and other essential vitamins, while dairy is a great source of calcium and additional nutrients. With the sugar we get from foods naturally, humans don’t need added sugars to function. Excess sugar can wreak havoc on the liver, leading to insulin resistance, diabetes, and coronary disease.
The biggest culprit of excess sugar consumption in the United States is sugary beverages. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting calories from added sugars to no more than 10 percent each day (that’s 200 calories, or about 12 teaspoons, for a 2,000 calorie diet).
To put things into perspective, one 12-ounce can of Coca Cola has about nine teaspoons of sugar. Just one can of soda and you’ve used up almost an entire day’s sugar allowance! Drinking sugary beverages such as syrup-filled coffees, juices, sodas, and more can quickly rack up calories. Eliminating sugar-filled drinks from your diet is a great way to lower your blood pressure and decrease chronic inflammation—both of which can reduce your risk of heart disease.
Eating for YOUR Heart Health
Although the science presented in this blog post has been proven over the years through reputable studies, trials, and reports, nothing can tell you how to eat for your bio-individuality like a personalized DNA report. Discover which foods are right for your body and learn how to tailor your diet to your custom, genetics-based needs in our article, “How Do You Know Which Foods Are Right for Your Body?”
1. Benjamin EJ, Muntner P, Alonso A, et al. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2019 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2019;139(10). doi:10.1161/cir.0000000000000659.
2. Friedman GD, Cutter GR, Donahue RP, et al. Cardia: study design, recruitment, and some characteristics of the examined subjects. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. 1988;41(11):1105-1116. doi:10.1016/0895-4356(88)90080-7.
3. Aune D, Keum N, Giovannucci E, et al. Whole grain consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all cause and cause specific mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMJ. June 2016:i2716. doi:10.1136/bmj.i2716.
4. Iqbal MP. Trans fatty acids – a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences. 2014;30(1). doi:10.12669/pjms.301.4525.
5. Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, Flanders WD, Merritt R, Hu FB. Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2014;174(4):516. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563.