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Eat a heart-healthy diet

Consuming the right foods can sometimes prevent or reduce the need for drugs

Last updated: February 2013

Consuming the right foods can protect your heart in multiple ways: by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and blood pressure levels, limiting inflammation of the arteries, warding off diabetes, and, of course, helping you lose weight. Here are the strategies that work best.

Try these steps first

Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, with a variety of colors, is one way to protect the heart, since they contain a multitude of potentially helpful nutrients beyond the familiar vitamins and minerals. Here are some additional ways.

Choose healthy fats. Swap unsaturated fats—such as those in canola, olive, safflower, and soybean oils—for saturated fats, such as those in butter. Avoid trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oil that lurks in margarines and many fast or packaged foods. Trans fats raise LDL, lower HDL, and inflame the arteries.

Cut back on salt. Aim for less than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, the amount in a teaspoon of salt. If you already have high blood pressure, try to cut back to 1,500 mg. Focus especially on prepared and packaged foods, since that's were most salt in our diet lurks.  See our tips for other ways to reduce your sodium intake.

Get plenty of fiber. That can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, possibly by absorbing saturated fat in the gut. It may also help control inflammation. And it can help you feel full, so may help with weight-loss efforts. Good sources include fruits, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and vegetables. Soluble fiber, found especially in barley, beans, and oats, may be particularly effective.

Limit dietary cholesterol. If your LDL is elevated, consume less than 200 milligrams of cholesterol per day-the amount in one egg yolk, 8 ounces of skinless chicken breast, or 10 ounces of lean sirloin. Other people should keep their daily consumption under 300 mg.

Drink moderately, if at all. Up to one drink a day for women and two for men can raise HDL (good) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and possibly reduce inflammation and help ward off diabetes. But even a little too much alcohol undermines the heart.

Consider plant stanols or sterols. Those naturally occurring substances are now added to a number of products, including Benecol and Take Control margarine and Minute Maid Heart Wise orange juice. Consuming two servings a day may reduce LDL by 5 to 17 percent.

Include some soy. Two to three daily servings of soy protein—from tofu, soy milk, and other soy products—may reduce LDL by up to 10 percent.  

Don't overeat. The rate of heart attack increases after big meals. And digesting lots of food at once may inflame the arteries.

Choose supplements carefully

uPopping vitamin and mineral pills might seem like an easy way to boost heart health, but that's usually not the case. Folic acid and other B vitamins, for example, failed to prevent heart attacks, strokes, and death from cardiovascular disease in women at risk for heart disease in a 2008 study from the Harvard Medical School. And neither vitamin C nor E prevented those events in another large study. Vitamin E, in fact, was linked to an increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke. Finally, a 2009 review found that while diets rich in those vitamins protected people from heart disease, supplements of them did not, underscoring the power of a healthy diet.

There is at least one supplement, however, that some people could consider: fish-oil pills. 

Omega-3 fatty acids, found naturally in the oil of fatty fish like salmon and sardines, appear to cut heart-attack risk by preventing blood clots and abnormal heart rhythms, and by lowering blood pressure and triglyceride levels. But the benefits of taking omega-3 supplements are proven only for people who already have heart disease.

Such individuals should aim for 1 gram a day of omega-3s, an amount that can only easily be achieved through fish-oil pills. Even they should discuss the supplements with a doctor first, since high doses may cause bleeding and additonal problems. And don't take more than 3 grams a day unless your doctor gives it the OK. If you opt for the pills, look for "USP Verified" products, which have been tested for potency and purity by the United States Pharmacopeia. Other people should aim for two small servings of fatty fish a week. Good choices that are high in omega-3s but low in mercury include pollock, salmon, and tilapia.

Benefits of colorful produce

Fruit or vegetable Phytochemical Possible benefits
Beets, cranberries, kidney beans, raspberries, red apples, red cabbage, red onions, strawberries, sweet cherries Anthocyanins* Lowered blood pressure; protection against circulatory problems caused by diabetes.
Garlic, leeks, white onions Allicin Reduced risk of cancer spread and heart attack; lowered cholesterol and blood pressure; enhanced infection defenses.
Blackberries, black currants, blueberries, elderberries, purple grapes Anthocyanins* Reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, and age-related memory loss.
Apricots, butternut squash, cantaloupe, carrots, mangos, peaches, pumpkin, sweet potatoes Beta-carotene Reduced risk of cancer and heart disease; maintenance of good vision; increased infection-fighting ability.
Apricots, clementines, grapefruit, lemons, nectarines, oranges, papaya, peaches, pears, pineapple, tangerines, yellow peppers, yellow raisins Bioflavonoids Together with the vitamin C in these fruits, reduced cancer and heart-attack risk; maintenance of healthy skin, bones, and teeth.

* Research has found different possible benefits for anthocyanins, depending on whether red or blue-purple produce was studied.

Source: The National Cancer Institute

Heart attack calculator

Click on the image at right to use our heart-attack risk calculator. It can help you determine your risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years. Based on your answers, we've also included recommendations to help keep you healthy.

Ratings of heart tests

Click on the image at right to see our Ratings of tests used to screen for heart disease. It can help find the tests that are best for you, based on your your age, gender, and risk level.

   

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