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Diet and Heart Health Basics

Heart health and your diet

Your doctor may have recently told you that you’re at risk for heart disease due to your lifestyle or your family history. Perhaps you’ve recently experienced a major cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), more Americans die of heart disease than any other condition. You can reduce your chances of developing heart disease by eating a healthy diet.

Eating habits can be difficult to change. You may worry that starting to eat right now means you won’t enjoy food anymore. This isn’t the case. Even small changes can make a big difference in your quality of life.

Once you know which foods are best for your heart, eating healthy will become simpler. What does it mean to eat a heart-healthy diet? A heart-healthy diet includes a wide variety of nutritious foods, some of which you may already enjoy. The AHA recommends eating the following to boost your long-term heart health:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • whole grain
  • legumes
  • low-fat dairy products
  • poultry
  • fish
  • nuts

The AHA also recommends limiting how much red meat and sugary foods and beverages you consume.

Follow these guidelines and recommendations:

  • Choose lean means without skin and prepare them without added saturated and trans fat.
  • Eat fish at least twice per week. Oily fish with omega-3 fatty acids help lower your risk of heart disease.
  • Select 1 percent fat and low-fat dairy products.
  • Cut back on beverages and foods with added sugars.
  • Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation.
  • Follow the AHA’s recommendations when you eat out, and keep an eye on your portion sizes.
  • Fill up your plate with 50 percent vegetables and fruits

Beyond these general guidelines, several areas are important to understand when it comes to nutrition and your heart.

Effects of alcohol on the heart

The AHA recommendation on alcohol is to drink in moderation if you do drink. For men, this means no more than two drinks per day. Moderate intake for women means having no more than one drink per day. One drink equals one 12-ounce beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.

The AHA emphasizes that the relationship between alcohol and heart disease is complex. Researchers have found an association between heavy alcohol consumption and health risks, including alcoholism, obesity, and breast cancer. Some studies have suggested a reduction in cardiovascular disease with moderate alcohol consumption.

Despite this potential benefit, the AHA doesn’t recommend drinking alcohol to reduce cardiovascular risk. Use more conventional measures such as controlling your weight, exercising regularly, and lowering your cholesterol and blood pressure to reduce your risk. Drinking alcohol  can lead to higher calorie intake. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to sudden cardiac death. Your doctor can help you assess the risks and benefits related to drinking alcohol.

Effects of calcium on the heart

As with alcohol, the link between calcium and cardiovascular disease is unclear. The AHA emphasizes that there isn’t enough information to determine if calcium intake affects heart disease risk. However, eating fat-free and low-fat dairy products, along with eight or more fruits and vegetables per day, helps to significantly lower blood pressure.

The AHA emphasizes the importance for women in particular to eat fat-free and low-fat dairy products. Most women should aim to consume between 1,000 and 2,000 milligrams of calcium daily. The Mayo Clinic notes that some men may benefit from calcium supplements as well. Men over age 50 should consume in the range of 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams per day and 1,000 to 2,500 milligrams per day for men under age 50.

Effects of sugar on the heart

The AHA notes that the rise in obesity and cardiovascular disease has increased concern about the high intake of sugar in the typical American diet. Their statement concludes that you should follow certain guidelines to decrease cardiovascular risk while maintaining a healthy weight and meeting nutritional needs. Women should consume no more than 100 calories per day from added sugars. Men should consume more than 150 calories per day from added sugars

This amounts to a maximum of 6 teaspoons, or 24 grams, of added sugar for women and about 9 teaspoons, or 36 grams, of added sugar for men. Major sources of added sugars include:

  • soft drinks
  • candy
  • cakes
  • cookies
  • pie
  • fruit drinks
  • dairy desserts, such as ice cream
  • sweetened yogurt
  • sweetened grains such as waffles and oatmeal

Effects of caffeine on the heart

Caffeine is a stimulant. It can be in many foods and beverages, including:

  • coffee
  • tea
  • soft drinks
  • chocolate

 It hasn’t been determined yet if high caffeine intake increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

The Mayo Clinic notes that while studies have found no definitive connection between drinking coffee and an increased risk for heart disease, the research does suggest possible risks. Studies show that high consumption of unfiltered coffee is associated with minor increases in cholesterol levels.

Eating a healthy, low-fat diet that includes the following can improve your heart health:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • lean protein
  • legumes
  • whole grains

Take the time and make the effort to change your eating habits. Your heart and your loved ones will thank you.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Robin Madell
Medically reviewed on: Jun 07, 2016: Natalie Butler, RD, LD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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