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diet changes for heart health: woman at grocery store buying healthy foods

How To Eat Your Way To Better Heart Health 

Most of us know that heart health is important, but might not realize just how important. After all, heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—beating out even more seemingly deadly diseases such as cancer.

While research, including one study published in the journal Circulation Research, has shown that the death rate from heart disease is on the decline, according to another study published in JAMA Network Open the actual prevalence of the disease is unfortunately on the rise. This is in part due to genetics, lack of exercise and, most importantly, the food we eat, notes Richard E. Collins, M.D., Nebraska-based cardiologist and author of The Cooking Cardiologist

What’s even more concerning: The age at which people have heart attacks is getting younger and younger. One in five people who suffer from a heart attack in the United States is younger than 40, per the American College of Cardiology. 

Eating for Heart Heath

Our heart does a host of things for our body and is integral to every single bodily function, whether we’re cognizant of them or not. “The heart pumps oxygen and carries the carbon dioxide (used up oxygen) back to the lungs to be removed and replenished with more oxygen and circulates nutrients to all organs,” explains Collins. “Just like the motor in your car, your heart needs to be fully tuned and functioning with correct nutrients and healthy food.” 

Read More: What Is Volume Eating And How Can It Help You Lose Weight?

Eating (or limiting) certain foods has been associated with improved heart health and/or decreased risk of heart disease, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This is exciting news, especially for those at an increased risk for heart disease due to age or family history. 

Here, nutrition experts and cardiologists share the key diet changes that can boost your heart health and lower your risk of disease. 

1. Lower your intake of red meat

The World Cancer Research Fund recommends consuming no more than three portions or 12–18 ounces of red meat per week—and for good reason. Not only has the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled red meat as carcinogenic, meaning it can cause cancer in humans, but eating red meat has been linked directly to heart disease. In fact, one report by the NIH found that eating red meat daily tripled the amount of a chemical called Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) that has been linked to the disease.

The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N. recommends swapping out meat for seafood, which has been linked to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, per the American Heart Association (AHA). “Aim to eat fish at least two-to-three times weekly, and incorporate at least one meatless meal per week to boost your heart health,” she says. 

2. Include a fruit and vegetable with every meal

Fruits and vegetables have been shown to have a protective effect against a myriad of diseases, including heart disease, per the WHO. In fact, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal, a person reduces their risk of heart disease by four percent for every single serving of fruit and vegetable they consume per day. “Green leafy vegetables and vitamin-C rich fruits (strawberries, oranges, mango) seem to have the best protective effects,” says Blakely. “Add spinach to your breakfast eggs and an orange on the side.”

3. Choose fruits and vegetables rich in color

The darker the color of a fruit or vegetable, the more nutrients and heart-healthy antioxidants it likely contains, explains Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness. “For example, dark leafy greens like spinach have vitamin C and folate, but iceberg lettuce has hardly any nutrients,” he says. “Make it a point to have different fruits and veggies throughout the week so you ensure a good exposure to many antioxidants and heart-healthy nutrients.”

Read More: What It Really Means To ‘Eat The Rainbow’—And How To Do It Right 

4. Include a soluble fiber food at every meal

Research, including one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has shown that diets rich in soluble fiber, which comes from legumes like black and lima beans, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, avocados, and sweet potatoes, to name a few, can lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and thereby decrease the risk of heart disease. “Soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance when dissolved in water, traps cholesterol in the digestive tract, and prevents reabsorption,” explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N. “It also slows down digestion, which supports both blood sugar management and satiety.”

5. Avoid ultra-processed foods

In the 21st century, it’s hard to avoid at least minimally processed foods, i.e., foods altered in some way from their natural state. In fact, any food that’s been cooked, canned, or frozen is considered “processed” to some degree, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.   

Unfortunately, ultra processed foods such as protein bars, breakfast cereals, and frozen meals have been linked to an increase in cardiovascular disease, per the American College of Cardiology

“Reducing your intake of these foods will also lower what I like to call your ‘sodium exposure’ and lessen your chances for high blood pressure,” says Adams.

6. Incorporate more potassium-rich foods

Potassium is an important nutrient that helps regulate the sodium levels in our blood, notes Adams. “By adding more foods high in potassium, you give your circulatory system the tools it needs to thwart the effects of too much sodium,” he says. 

Many fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, citrus fruits, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, lentils, and kidney beans, are good sources of potassium. The NIH recommends that women get 2,600 mg and men get 3,400 mg of potassium every day.

7. Cut back on drinking

If you’re someone who enjoys a glass of wine or a cold beer with your dinner, you’re within the moderate drinking category recommended by the CDC. In fact, data presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 70th Annual Scientific Session found that drinking one alcoholic beverage a day for women and two for men can actually be beneficial for your heart. Heavy drinking, on the other hand—i.e., drinking several alcoholic drinks per day or binging on a given day of the week—can increase the risk of developing heart disease, per research published in Vascular Health and Risk Management

If you drink alcohol, it’s best not to exceed the recommended one drink daily for women or one to two drinks daily for men for optimal heart, and overall, health.

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