Healthy Diet for a Healthy Heart

Lisa Nelson, RD, LN Health Pro
  • There is an overwhelming amount of information regarding what you should and should not eat available to you. Many times I see people try new diet or special foods to promote heart health. However, they don't have the basics in place to promote a healthy heart. Therefore, making one particular change, such as eating more walnuts, won't have as great an impact.


    My goal today is to share 5 foundational pieces you need to have in place before implementing more targeted methods to achieve specific results.


    1. Reduce your intake of unhealthy fats


    There are different types of dietary fats - saturated and unsaturated. Trans and saturated fats have been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, such as elevated cholesterol levels, and should be consumed in moderation. You want to replace the majority of the saturated fats in your diet with more heart healthy unsaturated fats.

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    How do you do this?


    Eliminate or cut back on the most common sources of saturated fat and trans fatty acids - butter, margarine, shortening, and meat fat. Here are examples of how:

    1. Instead of using butter, margarine, or shortening when baking, switch to unsaturated oil like canola oil or olive oil. You can also experiment with fruit purees in some baked dishes.
    2. Cut back on saturated fat you consume from meat by trimming any visible fat prior to preparing meat and selecting leaning cuts of meat, such as your loins and round cuts of meat.
    3. Instead of using sour cream and butter on a baked potato, switch to a low-fat yogurt or salsa topping.
    4. Instead of using margarine on your toast select an all fruit spread or nut butter.
    5. Read the labels on packaged food to ensure the trans fats are 0. This is especially important when purchasing packaged cookies, crackers, and chips.

    You can also locate trans fats if the phrase ‘partially hydrogenated' is included in the ingredient list.


    Now, as you've reduced your intake of saturated fat you want to include foods that contain healthy unsaturated fats, such as the olive or canola oil mentioned above. Another option is to increase your intake of nuts and seeds. Add healthy sources of fats in moderation. While they are nutritious and heart healthy, they are also high in calories.


    2. Include more fruits and vegetables


    Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber and best of all they tend to be low in calories. They also contain numerous phytonutrients whose benefits are still being discovered.


    If you are in the habit of snacking (by this I mean the mindless eating not because you are hungry, but out of habit) you can use fruits and vegetables as a tool to turn this unhealthy habit around. A diet high in fruits and vegetables is desirable for heart health, so make sure fruits and vegetables are visible and ready for you to grab . . . move the snack crackers & chips out of sight.


    Start to alter the balance of your meals. For example, a standard meal is a large meat based entrée with a couple of side dishes that may or may not include fruits and vegetables. You want to start making your meat dish and starchy side take up less of your plate (about ¼ each) and fill half your plate with a vegetable or fruit option.


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    Unfortunately, not all fruit and vegetable options at the grocery store are heart healthy. Avoid canned fruit packed in heavy syrup, vegetables that are fried/breaded, or any fruits/vegetables in a creamy sauce. Instead select fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen fruits and vegetables (no added salt/sugar), or canned fruit in light syrup. If you purchase canned vegetables select ‘no added salt' or drain the liquid and rinse the vegetables thoroughly to reduce your sodium intake.


    3. Select lean protein sources


    Protein sources can contribute significantly to your total daily saturated fat and cholesterol intake. For a heart healthy diet you need to select lean meats, poultry and fish, egg whites or egg substitutes, and low-fat dairy products. Select low fat milk (2% milk is not low fat). When consuming poultry get in the habit of removing the skin which absorbs a lot of the fat you may use in preparation.


    Include legumes in your diet on a regular basis. Legumes - beans, peas, and lentils - are high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol, and high in dietary fiber. They can be used in combination with a meat dish or as a meat substitute.

    You'll want to avoid highly processed meats, such as cold cuts, hot dogs, sausage, and breaded meats. Organ meats, such as liver, should be consumed sparingly due to their higher cholesterol levels. Egg yolks would also fall in this category.


    4. Cut back on sodium.

    Your sodium intake can directly impact your blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Start by removing the salt shaker from your table. Do not automatically add salt when preparing foods. Taste your food before adding salt. Experiment with spices and herbs for flavor. Try different salt substitutes, but be aware of a potential interaction with certain diuretics.


    Cutting back on your intake of canned and processed foods will also dramatically decrease your sodium intake. If you purchase canned products, such as soup, select those reduced in sodium.


    5. Choose whole grains


    Replace refined grains - white rice, white bread, all-purpose flour, biscuits, egg noodles, high-fat snack crackers, quick breads - with whole grain alternatives. Whole grains provide needed nutrients and dietary fiber that is stripped out of refined grained products. Examples of whole grain foods include 100% whole grain bread, oatmeal, whole grain pasta, ground flaxseed, quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat flour.


    The Next Step


    After you have established a diet with a nutritionally solid foundation (as outlined above) you will be on track for heart health and ready to take more targeted dietary steps if necessary, such as boosting your intake of omega 3 fatty acids or increasing your intake of garlic to promote a lower blood pressure.


    In order for any of these more targeted approaches to be effective you need to have your foundation in place first.


    Be sure to access the free e-course 7 Natural Ways to Lower Blood Pressure at

Published On: May 19, 2011