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What Is a Heart-Healthy Diet?

To me, calling a diet “heart-healthy” can be a bit misleading. It seems to suggest that a heart-healthy diet is somehow different from a more general “healthy diet,” but they’re really one and the same.

A heart-healthy diet, also known as a cardiac diet, is one that calls for a variety of good-for-you foods––including lean proteins, plenty of fruits and vegetables, adequate amounts of fiber and modest amounts of sugar, salt, and saturated fat. Sounds like a healthy diet to me!

My Top 10 List of Heart-Healthy Foods

If you only have a few minutes to do a grocery run, here’s a convenient list of heart-healthy foods and ingredients to stock in your fridge and pantry:

  1. Fatty fish such as salmon and trout

  2. Lentils and beans, including soy

  3. Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and oats

  4. Fat-free dairy products

  5. Nuts and seeds such as walnuts and almonds; flax and chia seeds

  6. Vegetables, especially leafy greens and tomatoes

  7. Fruit, especially berries

  8. Heart-healthy fats such as extra virgin olive and cold-pressed canola oils; avocado

  9. Chicken and poultry breast

  10. Dark chocolate as an occasional treat

A heart-healthy diet not only supports the health of your heart, but it also supports your overall health in a number of ways. Low-fat protein foods keep you full and give your body what it needs to build and repair important body proteins, all while keeping your total fat and saturated fat in check.

The right carbohydrates give your body the fuel it needs, along with generous doses of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. And small amounts of the right fats contribute essential fatty acids and flavor.

When taken all together, these foods make up a well-balanced diet that’s filling and flavorful.

Heart-Healthy Proteins

Why they’re good for your heart:

The protein that you eat every day provides the basic building blocks that your body needs to perform literally hundreds of functions. Protein is found in a variety of plant and animal foods, but saturated fats often tag along—especially in the case of animal proteins.

Meats naturally contain more saturated fat and cholesterol than poultry, and poultry has more fat than seafood. If you eat dairy products, it’s best to choose fat-free or low fat. Plant proteins – like soy proteins, beans, and lentils – are naturally cholesterol free, and low in saturated fat. And fish is a good source of heart-healthy omega-3 fats.

What to look for:

Look for plant proteins like lentils and beans, and particularly the complete protein of soy and soy products. Also include eggs, fish and seafood, poultry (especially white meat), nonfat and low-fat dairy products, and occasional lean cuts of meat.

How to add to your diet:

  • Aim for several vegetarian meals per week that rely on beans, lentils and soy-based foods like tempeh and tofu to provide protein. Use canned beans for convenience.

  • Also aim for 2-3 fish meals per week. For convenience, stock up on canned salmon and tuna, and frozen fish and shrimp.

  • In recipes that call for meat or poultry, experiment with using tofu or seafood instead.

  • Replace high-fat meats with lower fat choices (ground poultry breast can replace ground beef, for example).

Heart-Healthy Carbohydrates

Why they’re good for your heart:

Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for your body’s engine. Their fiber content can also help fill you up, which can help you control your weight. Many fruits and vegetables are rich sources of potassium, which supports healthy blood pressure. And soluble fiber – found in apples, oranges, carrots, oats, barley, and beans – traps water as well as cholesterol in the digestive tract, so it helps to control the amount of cholesterol circulating in the blood.

Some fruits and vegetables are also good sources of nitrate, a compound used by the body to make nitric oxide which supports the health of your blood vessels. Do your best to limit your intake of carbohydrates from sugars and highly refined grains, which offer up much less nutrition and more calories per bite.

What to look for:

Keep your focus on vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains and whole-grain products to provide the carbs your body needs. Try to reduce your intake of sweets, juices, sugary drinks, and refined grain products like white rice, and “white” flour products like regular pasta, white bread, cereals, and crackers.

How to add to your diet:

  • Aim for a fruit or vegetable at every meal and snack.

  • Add fruits and vegetables to your protein shakes and use them for snacks, and add veggies to soups, stews, casseroles and mixed dishes.

  • Frozen fruits and vegetables are healthy, convenient, and just as nutritious as fresh. To retain nutrients in vegetables, cook by steaming, microwaving, or stir-frying.

  • Choose whole grains––such as brown rice, barley, quinoa, wild rice, and oats––over refined grains.

Heart-Healthy Fats

Why they’re good for your heart:

Your body needs small amounts of fat in order to function properly. What’s important is choosing the right fats and keeping your overall fat intake moderate. In general, fats that are derived from plant sources are considered to be more heart-healthy than animal fats. Animal fats contain more saturated fats, which tend to raise blood cholesterol levels.

What to look for:

Nuts, seeds, avocados and olives are some of the best sources of healthy fats, as are the oils that are derived from these foods. Olive oil and cold-pressed canola oil are good sources of monounsaturated fatty acids and are great for cooking. Small amounts of nuts and seeds can add a lot of flavor to dishes. Limit your intake of sources of saturated fats like butter and shortening, as well as foods that contain a lot of animal fat such as cheese, fatty meats, and ice cream.

How to add to your diet:

  • Use olive and canola oil for cooking. You may also consider alternative heart-healthy oils.

  • Use mashed avocado to replace foods like mayonnaise, sour cream or butter in cooking and at the table.

  • Use moderate amounts of nuts for snacks (heart-healthy, but the calories can add up).

A Heart-Healthy Diet for Vegans and Vegetarians

The great thing about a well-planned vegan or vegetarian diet is that it is naturally plant-based, which means it provides plenty of fiber and phytonutrients, while being naturally low in cholesterol and saturated fat. With plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, it’s easy to check off the boxes for heart-healthy carbohydrates and fats.

Beans, especially soy and soy products, and whole grains are sources of heart-healthy protein and so checking that box should be easy, too. But one of the biggest challenges – especially for strict vegans – is getting adequate protein from plant sources.

Foods need to supply all the essential amino acid building blocks since the body can’t make them. For meat-eaters, this isn’t a problem since all animal products are complete proteins (meaning they contain all the essential amino acids, and in the right proportions). The problem for vegetarians is that – with the exception of soybeans – most plant foods lack one or more essential amino acid, so they’re considered incomplete.

Fortunately, there’s a fairly easy work-around – and that’s to combine plant sources in such a way as to provide all the building blocks that the body needs. The essential amino acid that is lacking in beans, peas or lentils, for example, is abundant in grains – and, conveniently, what the grains lack, the beans can provide. So, when you pair black beans with rice, or a bowl of lentil soup with whole-grain bread, you can provide your body with all the essential amino acids it needs.

Another convenient way to boost protein is to stir a vegan or vegetarian protein powder into foods like smoothies, yogurt, and oatmeal. To round out the healthy vegetarian or vegan meal, just fill in with plenty of raw and cooked veggies, add nuts or seeds to veggies or avocado to salads, use heart-healthy oils in cooking, and have a serving of fruit for dessert.

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