One of the biggest lifestyle factors associated with heart health is diet, and it’s for good reason. Eating a diet high in saturated fats, trans fat and cholesterol has been linked to heart disease, and too much salt can lead to a rise in blood pressure. For American Heart Month, we’re sharing diet tips that can keep your heart healthy and strong.

Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. It’s no secret that fruits and veggies are an important part of your diet. They are nutrient packed and low in calories. It is recommended that adults eat four and half cups as part of their daily diet. That can include fresh as well as frozen and canned options, although it is important to check for added salt and sugar.

Pick products with whole grains. As the name suggests, whole grains contain all parts of the grain, including the bran, germ and endosperm. Refined grains have been milled to remove the bran and germ, which also takes away important nutrients like B vitamins, iron and dietary fiber. Check out nutrition labels as most products will identify if they contain whole grains. The American Heart Association recommends picking products that contain at least 51% whole grains.

Limit salt. A diet with too much salt can lead to high blood pressure. For many people, excess salt comes from canned or processed foods like soups or frozen meals, so a great step for cutting back is to shift your focus to fresh foods and cooking your own meals. The American Heart Association suggests that healthy adults have around a teaspoon of salt a day.

Cut back on “bad” fats. Dietary fats are essential nutrients. They give us energy, support cell function, help us absorb nutrients and protect our organs. However, saturated fats can contribute to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Typically solid at room temperature, these fats are found in animal-based foods like beef, pork, poultry, full-fat dairy products and eggs and tropical oils like coconut and palm. The American Heart Association recommends less than 6% of your total daily calories be from saturated fat or around 11 to 13 grams. Instead, choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are found in olive and canola oils, fish, nuts, seeds and avocados.

Avoid added sugar. Sugar isn’t always sweet when it comes to health. Our bodies don’t need sugar to function—it just adds extra calories with no nutrients. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sugar to 6% or less of your daily caloric intake. There are four calories in one gram of sugar. For example, a can of regular soda contains around 40 grams of added sugar, so 160 calories.

Think about portion size. How much you eat can be just as important as what you eat. Keep track of your portions, including how many recommended servings of each food you’re getting. Often, restaurant dishes contain much more than a single portion, so be aware when eating out. When building your plate, focus more on low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods while eating less high-calorie items.

Focus On: Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your cells, used to make hormones and digest fats. Your body makes the cholesterol it needs, but also acquires it from certain foods, like egg yolks or fatty meats. High cholesterol can cause plaque buildup in your arteries, leading to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

There are two types of lipoproteins responsible for carrying cholesterol to and from cells: low-density (LDL) and high-density (HDL).

  • LDL: It makes up most of the cholesterol in your body. LDL is considered “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to fatty buildup in arteries.
  • HDL: It carries cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver, where it is broken down and flushed from the body. “Good” cholesterol doesn’t completely remove LDL, only one-third to one-fourth of total blood cholesterol.

Saturated fats like red meat and full-fat dairy raise your total cholesterol, and limiting your intake of these foods can reduce your bad cholesterol. The same is true of trans fats, which often appear on food labels as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” The Food and Drug Administration banned the use of trans fats in 2018, but food produced before that date was allowed to be distributed more recently.

There also are several foods you can incorporate into your diet to improve your heart health and cholesterol.

  • Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, mackerel, walnuts and flaxseeds
  • Oatmeal, kidney beans, Brussels sprouts, apples, pears and other foods with soluble fiber, which can reduce absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream
  • Low-fat dairy products because whey protein has been shown to lower LDL and total cholesterol as well as blood pressure

Source: American Heart Association, Mayo Clinic