Did you know that nutrition plays a big role in heart health? In fact, this article focuses specifically on nutrition tips for heart health – that’s how important our nutrition is for overall cardiovascular wellness and longevity.
With the rise in heart disease, nutrition tips for heart health are increasingly more important to keep your heart happy and healthy.
Heart disease remains prominent in the United States and the statistics are serious and sobering. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the number one cause of death for both men and women, and it is estimated that every 34 seconds a person in the U.S. will experience a heart attack.
CVD is the number one cause of death for both men and women.
However, many forms of heart disease are preventable, and there are many proactive ways in which you can lower your risk and improve your heart health. Prioritizing balanced nutrition plays a significant role in the prevention and management of cardiovascular diseases.
This article will delve into heart disease and heart disease prevention, what foods improve heart health and recommended nutrition tips for heart health to help you take active steps to reduce your heart disease risk.
What Heart Disease Is and What Causes It
The term “heart disease” refers to a few different cardiovascular conditions. These include heart failure (when the heart cannot pump blood as efficiently as it once did), arrhythmias (abnormalities in the heartbeat), and congenital heart defects (which a person is born with and can be diagnosed in childhood or adulthood).
The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease, known as CAD. In this condition, the blood vessels which bring blood back to the heart become filled with plaque. This buildup of plaque, known as atherosclerosis, is typically caused by excess fat and cholesterol in the arteries.
Blood clots can form when plaque breaks or ruptures. Clots which prevent blood from flowing back to the heart can lead to a heart attack (known medically as a myocardial infarction), while ones that block blood flow to the brain can cause a stroke.
CAD may present with symptoms such as:
- Pain, tightness, pressure or discomfort in the chest (typically known as angina)
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper belly area or back
- Pain, numbness, weakness or coldness in the legs and/or arms
However, CAD can be asymptomatic and a patient may not realize they have it until after a serious event like a heart attack, stroke or heart failure.
It is estimated that 20 million Americans over the age of 20 have CAD.
Another common predecessor to heart disease is chronic high blood pressure or hypertension. Hypertension forces the heart to pump harder to effectively circulate blood throughout the body, which can lead to an enlarged heart muscle and narrowed arteries.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease
Approximately 47% of Americans have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Examples include:
- Lack of physical activity/sedentary lifestyle
- High blood pressure and/or high cholesterol (of particular concern are higher than normal levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol and lower than normal levels of HDL cholesterol)
- Family history of heart disease, especially if the relative developed it at an early age (before age 55 for a male relative and before age 65 for a female relative)
- Diagnosis of diabetes
- Poor diet quality, notably diets high in fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol
- Poor dental health
- Men have a higher risk than women, though women’s risk increases after menopause
- Heart disease risk increases with age
While heart disease cannot be reversed or cured, many symptoms can be alleviated by medications, procedures and lifestyle modifications.
How Nutrition Impacts Heart Health
There is consistent evidence showing that imbalanced nutritional patterns are linked to the development of cardiovascular disease. In this section, we’ll begin sharing nutrition tips for heart health by starting with the big picture.
Diets which are excessive in sodium and refined foods, added sugars and unhealthy fats are most implicated in increasing risk, particularly when they are also low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fiber, fish and nuts.
Approximately 47% of Americans have at least one risk factor for heart disease.
Heart disease typically develops either after or alongside its risk factors like high cholesterol (known medically as hypercholesterolemia) and/or hypertension. Nutrient-dense foods and optimally balanced dietary patterns are regularly found to improve blood pressure, cholesterol and other cardiometabolic laboratory values.
Here is what the research has to say about the role of different nutrients in promoting heart health and reducing risk of heart disease.
When it comes to heart health, the type and amount of dietary fat are important to consider. Foods which are high in saturated fat, such as red and processed meats, lard and butter, are more likely to cause atherosclerosis development in the heart. It is also worth noting that some plant oils, like coconut and palm, are also high in saturated fat.
Meanwhile, unsaturated fats have shown a more positive effect on cardiovascular health. Monounsaturated fats like those found in olive and canola oil are associated with reducing blood pressure.
Polyunsaturated fats may have the most significant impact on the health of the heart.
A 2020 study, found that diets which replaced saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats demonstrated the greatest reduction in risk for adverse cardiac events compared to replacements with monounsaturated fat, carbohydrates and protein.
Polyunsaturated fats are primarily found in fatty fish like salmon, walnuts, chia seeds and vegetable oils like safflower and sunflower. Omega-3s are perhaps the most well-known polyunsaturated fatty acids.
These Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids Will Surprise You
Proteins are the building blocks of energy metabolism and critical to building and maintaining muscle mass, including the heart muscle. Animal sources of protein like meat, eggs and dairy are considered complete proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids that cannot be made in the body, while most plant proteins (except for soy) are incomplete sources.
But similar to fats, certain types and sources of protein are more favorable to heart health than others. Red and processed meats (particularly in fried preparations) are consistently linked with increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Plant sources of protein may be more beneficial on CVD risk factors than animal proteins. Men with high cholesterol had significant reductions in their cholesterol levels after replacing animal protein with soy protein in their diet.
Carbohydrate foods which are high in dietary fiber are recommended as part of a heart-healthy diet. Fiber helps lower cholesterol levels and has a favorable impact on blood pressure.
Good sources of fiber include fruits and vegetables in their whole form, legumes like lentils, beans and peas, and whole grains like whole wheat and brown rice.
Additionally, several nutrients in fruits and vegetables are beneficial for heart health, particularly antioxidants. These phytochemicals protect against the oxidation of cholesterol which causes plaque to accumulate in arteries.
Phytochemicals: A Guide to Eating the Rainbow With Plant-Based Nutrients
*A note of caution: Some citrus fruits, like grapefruit, may need to be omitted from the diet for people who are taking cholesterol-lowering medications like statins. It is important to check with your physician and dietitian to determine which foods are off limits in your specific situation.
Meanwhile, carbohydrates which have been processed, refined or added into foods are more likely to increase risk for heart disease. Research indicates that excess consumption of added and refined sugars is linked to elevated triglycerides (fats in the bloodstream), which often sets the stage for the development of atherosclerosis.
Added sugars are found across several foods, especially sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas, fruit drinks, flavored milks (like chocolate and strawberry) and sweetened coffees and teas. The official recommendation is to limit added sugars to no more than 25 grams (100 calories) per day for women and no more than 37.5 grams (150 calories) per day for men.
While sodium is a mineral and electrolyte that the human body needs, many Americans consume more than the recommended amounts. High intake of sodium greatly increases the risk for hypertension and hypertensive heart disease.
The U.S. National Institute of Health developed a diet called the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), which pairs sodium reductions with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and low-fat and fat-free dairy products.
The DASH diet has consistently demonstrated reductions in CVD risk factors like systolic and diastolic blood pressure as well as LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Canned foods, ready-to-eat meals, condiments, foods with pre-made sauces or powders (such as boxed macaroni and cheese) and even store-bought salad dressings are significant sources of sodium. It is important to check nutrition labels and keep sodium intake to 2,300 mg/day on the standard DASH diet and 1,500 mg/day for those with existing hypertension.
What Is the Best Recommended Nutrition for the Heart?
The American Heart Association (AHA) makes the following recommendations for a daily heart-healthy diet:
- 5 servings or 2.5 cups of vegetables (canned, dried, fresh and frozen)
- 4 servings or 2 cups of fruits (canned, dried, fresh and frozen)
- 3-6 servings or 3-6 ounces of whole grains such as barley, brown rice, millet, oatmeal, popcorn, whole wheat bread, crackers and pasta
- 3 servings or 3 cups of low-fat (1%) or fat-free dairy
- 1-2 servings or 5.5 ounces of proteins like eggs, non-fried fish, lean meats, legumes, nuts, skinless poultry and seeds
- 3 tablespoons of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils like canola, olive, peanut, safflower and sesame oil
The AHA also created a Heart-Check Certification Program which classifies foods found in grocery stores through seven specific criteria for heart-healthy living. These include:
- Total fat less than 6.5 grams
- Saturated fat 1 grams or less and 15% less calories from fat
- Trans fat less than 0.5 grams per label serving
- Cholesterol 20 mg or less
- Sodium depending on food category either up to 140 mg, 240 mg, or 360 mg per label serving or 480 mg per label serving and per RACC
- 10% or more of the daily value (DV) of 1 of 6 naturally occurring beneficial nutrients vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or dietary fiber
Here Are the Top 5 Nutrition Tips for Heart Health:
So, what foods improve heart health and are of benefit? Read on for our top five nutrition tips for heart health.
1. Focus On Unsaturated Fats
- Marine omega 3s found in salmon and tuna
- Chia seeds
- Peanuts, tree nuts and nut butters
- Olive, canola, sunflower, safflower, soybean and peanut oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Soybeans and tofu
2. Incorporate Plant Proteins
3. Load up on Fiber
- Check nutrition labels for foods which contain five or more grams of dietary fiber per serving
- Prioritize whole fruits and vegetables, and keep the skin on foods like potatoes and summer squash when cooking
- Enjoy high-fiber grains like steel cut oats, quinoa, barley and bulgur wheat
4. Keep an Eye on Sodium
- Make salad dressings at home using olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a squeeze of lemon
- Opt for lower sodium condiments, such as coconut aminos or reduced sodium soy sauce
- When using canned beans, rinse them thoroughly in the sink to remove excess salt
5. Limit Refined Carbohydrates
- Replace sodas or sweetened fruit drinks with sparkling water, water with pieces of fruit or unsweetened tea
- Replace white rice or white pasta with brown rice, quinoa or whole wheat pasta
- Instead of a pre-packaged snack or dessert, try carrot sticks with hummus, a piece of whole wheat toast or a brown rice cake with peanut or almond butter, or sliced strawberries with one square of dark chocolate (72% cacao or higher)
Heart-Healthy Nutrition Tips: The Takeaway
Many of the risk factors for heart disease are within your control, and lifestyle factors like nutrition and physical activity make a huge impact in lowering risk. Maintaining a well-balanced diet can also have benefits for people who already have hypertension, high cholesterol and/or heart disease.
Dietary patterns like the DASH Diet which emphasize a whole foods focused approach have shown promising effects on reducing risk for cardiovascular disease. A daily diet of lean proteins, unsaturated fats, fiber and plant-based nutrients like antioxidants is most likely to deliver benefits for your heart.
The AHA dietary recommendations can be a great starting place for developing a heart-healthy diet that works for you. Their Heart-Check Food Certification can be a helpful tool to select nutrient-dense foods when shopping at grocery stores.
Take a moment to thank yourself for all the efforts you are making to take care of your health (including reading this article!). Implementing these nutrition tips for heart health in your journey can make all the difference in keeping your heart happy and healthy.
All included information is not intended to treat or diagnose. Always consult your healthcare provider for medical questions and before beginning or changing any dietary, supplementation, and exercise regimen.