Tips for heart-healthy eating

Find delicious recipes from Oregon Guide to Heart Healthy Living

Following are common questions about the relationship of nutrition to heart health, answered by Valerie Edwards, MS, RD, LD, outpatient nutrition therapist, Providence Nutrition Services.

Q. Can the foods you eat improve your heart health?

A. Absolutely! Both your diet and your lifestyle can have a significant impact on your cardiac health. The choices you make – such as choosing to eat lots of fruits and vegetables; opting for heart-healthy fats and limiting unhealthy fats; deciding not to smoke; and committing to regular exercise – can maximize your heart health and minimize your chances of developing heart disease. In addition, people who have heart disease can improve their overall health, including their cardiac outcomes, by making healthier food choices.

Q. What types of foods should people eat for better heart health?

A. Some of the foods that contribute the most to heart health are fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish.

Whole grains contain fiber – see below for more information on why that's important.

Fatty fish, such as salmon and herring, contains omega 3 fatty acids, which help protect against heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends eating these types of fish at least twice a week.

Fruits and vegetables are not only good for the heart, but they also help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight – which is also good for the heart. However, no matter how many times we hear this, most of us still don't eat enough fruits and vegetables. It's common to eat one piece of fruit or one serving of vegetables a day, but ideally, we need three of four servings of each. The government guidelines recommend eating five to nine total servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

Q. Can foods help lower cholesterol?

A. Yes. Dietary fiber is one nutrient that helps lower bad cholesterol (LDL). For some people with high cholesterol, eating more high-fiber foods can reduce LDL enough to make medication unnecessary.

Fiber is plentiful in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans (lentils, black beans, pinto beans, etc). A good goal is to get 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day.

Q. How can I tell whether or not a food is high in fiber?

A. Many foods are promoted as being high in fiber, but you have to look closely at the Nutrition Facts label to be sure.

One of the best ways to boost dietary fiber is to eat whole-grain breads and cereals. If the label lists at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, that's usually a good indicator that it contains primarily whole grains. Many breads and cereals contain 5 grams of fiber or more – these are great sources of fiber. Whole-wheat pasta and brown rice, while also whole-grain foods, are lesser sources of fiber – but every little bit helps.

Beans and legumes are another excellent source of fiber. Lentils, black beans, pinto beans and other legumes all have about 5 grams of fiber per half-cup serving. Try to get more beans in your diet by adding them to soups, salads and burritos (with whole-grain tortillas, of course). These changes will boost your fiber significantly.

Q. What are the worst foods for your heart?

A. Most foods are OK in moderation, but it can be easy to overdo it with snack foods. Crackers, chips, muffins, cookies, microwave popcorn – these snacks are usually high in saturated fats and trans fats, the worst fats for your heart

Trans fats are added to snack foods to extend their shelf life at the grocery store. Eating too many of them, however, can shorten your own shelf life by increasing the production of bad cholesterol. Fortunately, we are starting to see more labels that say "trans-fat free" as food manufacturers turn toward healthier fat sources. Trans fats are still found in fried foods from restaurants.

Snack foods aren't the only foods that are high in saturated fats, the other cholesterol-raising fat. French fries and other fried foods, fast foods, and highly fatty cuts of meat are also major sources of saturated fats, and should be limited if you want to keep your cholesterol levels in the healthy zone.

Q. Are all snacks bad, or can you recommend some that are heart healthy?

A. Snacking can be very good for you, and there are many heart-healthy options. The best snacks for your heart are fruits, vegetables, nuts (a great source of the heart-healthy fats that we all need), and non-fat or low-fat dairy products. Here are a few heart-healthy snack suggestions:

  • Low-fat yogurt with fresh berries
  • Low-fat cottage cheese with sliced bananas
  • A small handful of raw or dry-roasted nuts (limit portions to 1/4 to 1/3 cup, because nuts are calorie dense)
  • Homemade trail mix combining nuts, seeds and dried fruit
  • A piece of whole-grain toast with natural peanut butter (ingredients should include only peanuts and salt) An apple or banana with a tablespoon or two of peanut butter

Q. Is it OK to indulge sometimes?

A. We all want to enjoy a special treat now and then – that's part of enjoying life. If you eat healthfully most of the time, it's fine to indulge occasionally. Moderation and balance are the keys.

Going a little overboard once a week or every other week is not a big deal. If you indulge more often, it's important to balance that with extra activity and exercise. Around the holidays, for example, it's especially important to plan more physical activity into your week to balance out those extra indulgences.

If you have advanced heart disease or another serious medical concern, you should talk with your doctor about how strict you need to be.

Q. How long does a person have to keep up these dietary changes?

A. People tend to stick with new diets for about three to six months, and any positive results they see are usually as temporary as the diet. For lasting results, it's important to make lasting changes. If you are in this for your heart, don't look at these suggestions as another temporary diet – look at them as a new and better way to eat for the rest of your life.