As the saying goes, you are what you eat, and that’s especially true when it comes to heart health. Dietary habits can affect your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels – all factors that can determine your risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
So when it comes to diet and heart health, what foods should you eat more, less or none of? Here’s what a Harvard nutritionist and cardiologist suggests.
Eat less: Saturated fatty acids
Saturated fatty acids are mainly found in meats such as beef and pork as well as delicatessen foods. Dairy products such as milk, butter, cream and cheese; and tropical oils such as coconut oil and palm oil. Large amounts of saturated fat are also found in many quick, processed and baked foods such as frozen pizza, desserts, hamburgers and packaged sweets.
The biggest health concern with saturated fat is its effect on cholesterol levels. “Eating high amounts of saturated fat produces more ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, which can form plaque in the arteries, blocking blood flow and increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke,” says registered dietitian Marc O’Meara, an outpatient senior nutritionist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Eat more: Healthy fats
“In addition to avoiding saturated fat, you should also consume more healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats,” says O’Meara. These “good” fats help lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
Sources of monounsaturated fats include olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados and most nuts. There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines; Linseed; walnuts; and soybean oil. Many plant oils – such as soy, sunflower, walnut and corn oil – are rich in omega-6 fatty acids.
“For heart health, it’s important to focus on consuming omega-3 fats several times a week, as these are only found in limited amounts in the diet,” says O’Meara. “Omega-6 fats are easier to obtain because they are found in a wider range of foods.”
Follow the 80/20 rule
It is not realistic to avoid all problematic foods. It’s okay to eat chips every now and then while watching the game, treat yourself to dessert, and eat out with friends. To ensure you’re consistently sticking to an all-around heart-healthy diet while living a little, follow the 80/20 rule: eat healthy 80% of your time and save 20% of your meals and snacks for fun foods. “This eliminates the stress of having to eat perfectly every day,” says registered dietitian Marc O’Meara of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Weekends count, so don’t pile all your delicious food into a few days. Instead, sprinkle them throughout the week to give yourself the best chance of weight control.”
Eat less: Refined sugar
Refined sugar is added to foods to improve taste (which is why it is also called “added” sugar). Refined sugar comes from sugar cane, sugar beets and corn, which are processed to isolate the sugar.
Refined sugar has several indirect links to heart health. Consuming too much refined sugar contributes to weight gain, the leading cause of fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes, both of which are closely linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Excess added sugar may also play a role in increasing blood pressure and stimulating chronic inflammation, two other factors linked to heart disease.
Top dietary sources of refined sugar include soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit-flavored drinks, flavored yogurt, cereal, cookies, and cakes. Refined sugar is also found in many other processed foods, such as canned soups, sausages and ketchup.
Guidelines recommend men consume no more than 36 grams (about 9 teaspoons worth) of refined sugar per day, which is about the contents of a 12-ounce can of soda. “The best way to control your added sugar intake is to read food labels,” says O’Meara. “To get an accurate amount, multiply the grams of sugar on the label by the total number of servings.”
Eat more: Plant-based foods
Science has provided compelling evidence for the heart-healthy benefits of plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets.
“These diets have been consistently shown to help control the key markers of heart disease: cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar,” says Dr. Ron Blankstein, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Heart and Vascular Center.
Both diets emphasize large amounts of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fatty fish, legumes and nuts. olive oil as the main source of fat; and minimal amounts of red meat, dairy and alcohol. (While whole fruits and vegetables are ideal, low-sodium canned vegetables and frozen fruits and vegetables without added sauces and cream are just as nutritious.)
“These diets provide nutrients your heart needs, like healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and antioxidants that help fight inflammation,” says Dr. Blankstone.
Perhaps best of all, a plant-based diet can also keep you from unhealthy eating habits.
“Eating more of these plant-based foods means you’re eating less processed and high-sugar foods,” says Dr. Blankstone. “And always remember that it is never too late to pay more attention to your diet. Don’t wait for a heart-related event to change your eating habits.”
Image: © ucky-sky/Getty Images