Heart Center, featuring the Luce Heart Institute

Heart Healthy Choices

Eating Heart Healthy Foods

Luce Heart Healthy Choices

Eating has a big impact on your heart health. In fact, eating healthier can improve several of your heart risks at once. For instance, it helps you manage weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure. The below information can help you make heart healthy changes without giving up all the foods and flavors you love.

Getting Started

  • Talk to your health care provider about eating plans, such as the DASH diet. You may also be referred to a dietitian.
  • Change a few things at a time. Give yourself time to get used to a few eating changes before adding more.
  • Work to create a tasty, healthy eating plan that you can stick to for the rest of your life.

Goals for Healthy Eating

Below are some tips to improve your eating habits:

  • Limit saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fats raise your levels of cholesterol, so keep these fats to a minimum. They are found in foods such as fatty meats, whole milk, cheese, and palm and coconut oils. Avoid trans fats because they lower good cholesterol as well as raise bad cholesterol. Trans fats are most often found in processed foods.
  • Reduce sodium (salt) intake. Eating too much salt may increase your blood pressure. Limit your sodium intake to 2,400 milligrams (mg) per day, or less if your health care provider recommends it. Dining out less often and eating fewer processed foods are two great ways to decrease the amount of salt you consume.
  • Managing calories. A calorie is a unit of energy. Your body burns calories for fuel, but if you eat more calories than your body burns, the extras are stored as fat. Your health care provider can help you create a diet plan to manage your calories. This will likely include eating healthier foods as well as exercising regularly. To help you track your progress, keep a diary to record what you eat and how often you exercise.

Choose the Right Foods

Aim to make these foods staples of your diet. If you have diabetes, you may have different recommendations that what is shown here:

  • Fruits and Vegetables: provides plenty of nutrients without a lot of calories. At meals, fill half your plate with these foods. Split the other half of you plate between whole grains and lean protein.
  • Whole Grains: are high in fiber and rich in vitamins and nutrients. Good choices include whole-wheat bread, pasta, and brown rice.
  • Lean Proteins: gives you nutrition with less fat. Choose fish, skinless chicken, and beans.
  • Low-Fat or Nonfat Dairy: provides nutrients without a lot of fat. Try low-fat or nonfat milk, cheese, or yogurt.
  • Healthy Fats: can be good for you in small amounts. These are unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, nuts, and fish. Try to have at least 2 servings per week of fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. These contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart. Flaxseed is the other source of heart healthy fat.

More on Heart Healthy Eating

Read Food Labels

Healthy eating starts at the grocery store. Be sure to pay attention to food labels on packaged foods. Look for products that are high in fiber and protein, and low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Avoid products that contain trans fat. Any pay close attention to serving size. For instance, if you plan to eat two servings, double all the numbers on the label.

Prepare Food Correctly

A key part of healthy cooking is cutting down on added fat and salt. Look on the internet for lower-fat, lower sodium recipes. Also, try the tips below:

  • Remove fat from meat and skin from poultry before cooking.
  • Skim fat from the surface of soups and sauces.
  • Broil, boil, bake, steam, and microwave food without added fats.
  • Choose ingredients that spice up your food without adding calories, fat, or sodium. Try these items: horseradish, hot sauce, lemon, mustard, nonfat salad dressings, and vinegar. For salt-free herbs and spices, try basil, cilantro, cinnamon, pepper, and rosemary.

Identifying Your Heart Risk

What Are Your Risk Factors?

A risk factor increases your chance of having heart disease. Some risk factors can't be controlled, such as age or family history of heart disease. But most others can be managed by making lifestyle changes and taking medications. For each risk factor you reduce, your chance of heart attack and stroke goes down. And the length and quality of like may go up.

Risks You Can Manage

These risk factors can all be changed. Review your risk factors below.

Abnormal Cholesterol Levels
Abnormal levels of cholesterol can increase your risk for developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD), which can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or other problems. If your cholesterol levels are of concern. Your health care provider will work with you to improve your cholesterol level. Lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, and weight management can help you improve your cholesterol, but you may also need medication.

Diabetes
This health problem leads to a high level of sugar in your blood. It can damage the arteries if not kept under control. Diabetes makes you more likely to have a silent heart attack (one without symptoms). You're at risk if your:

  • A1C is 7% or higher or your eAG is 154 or above.

A1C shows as a percentage. But it can also show as a number that estimates the Average Glucose (eAG). eAG is a number like the numbers on your daily glucose monitor. A1C and eAG both measure the amount of glucose that sticks to a protein in red blood cells called hemoglobin.

Your health care provider will help you figure out what your A1C or eAG should be. Your target number will depend on your age, general health, and other factors. Your treatment plan may need changes if your current number is too high.

Excess Weight
Being overweight makes other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, more likely. Excess weight around the waist or stomach increases your heart disease risk the most. You're at risk if your:

  • Waist circumference is more than 35 inches (women) or 40 inches (men).
  • Body mass index (BMI) is greater than 25.

High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure (hypertension) occurs when blood pushes too hard against artery walls as it flows through them. This damages the artery lining. In general, you're at risk if you have:

  • Blood pressure of 120/80 or higher. Your doctor may prescribe a personal goal.
  • Blood pressure of 140/90 is high blood pressure.

Lack of Physical Activity
If you're not active, problems with diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight are more likely. You're at risk if:

  • You exercise less than 40 minutes per day, on fewer than 3 to 4 days a week.

Smoking
This is the most important risk factor you can change. Smoking damages arteries and makes it easier for plaque to build up. Smokers are also at higher risk of blood clots (which can block arteries) and stroke. You're at risk if you:

  • Smoke cigarettes, cigars, or a pipe

Stress and Strong Emotions
Stressful events and feelings can raise heart rate and blood pressure. Stress can also bring on feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger. These feelings do not directly lead to heart disease, but they do affect overall health and make quality of life worse.