Food for the Heart

Heart-healthy eating involves more than slashing fat and cholesterol. Learn what foods can help keep you healthy.

You want to eat well to protect your heart. You start by limiting certain foods you know can cause trouble, such as butter, red meat, cheese, and fried foods. But did you know that one of the keys to heart-healthy eating is to concentrate on what to add to your meal plan?

Reducing saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, and sodium in your diet is a good start, but there is a lot more to heart-healthy eating. The following guidelines will help you tackle the rest of your meal plan.

Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, beans (legumes), and whole-grain products. These foods are naturally free of cholesterol and saturated fat. Also, they are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. And they are the only category of foods that will provide heart-healthy fiber.

  • Aim for a minimum of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Variety is the key, and the more colorful, the better. Use red peppers, yellow squash, orange carrots, and purple cabbage.
  • Aim for 6 servings of grains a day. Focus on whole grains for extra fiber and nutrients. Try brown rice, barley, whole-grain breads, cereals, crackers, and pastas.
  • Include plenty of beans, such as kidney, pinto, navy, and soy beans. They are loaded with fiber and are also good sources of protein and other nutrients.
  • Experts suggest 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day. Look to include plenty of soluble fiber, found in fruits, oats, and beans. This type of fiber has been shown to be especially helpful for lowering cholesterol.

Include healthy fats in your meal plan. Typically, the first thing to go on a low-cholesterol diet is the fat. Cutting out all fat is not required, though, and can even work against you. Some types of fat can be harmful, but others have proven to be beneficial.

  • Saturated fats should be limited. They can raise the level of cholesterol in your blood. These fats are found in red meat, bacon, hot dogs, poultry skin, butter, high-fat dairy, and products made with butter or cream.
  • Polyunsaturated fats such as corn, safflower, and sunflower oils can be eaten in moderation, but should be limited in favor of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats.
  • Monounsaturated fats are thought to be heart-healthy. These include olive and canola oils, avocado, and most nuts and seeds.
  • Omega-3 fats are good for the heart and usually lacking in the American diet. Good sources are fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), flax oil and flaxseeds, walnuts, and some green leafy vegetables. The American Heart Association says to eat 2 servings of fatty fish per week. Children and pregnant or nursing women should avoid certain fish that are high in mercury. These include shark, swordfish, mackerel, and tile fish.

Choose fat-free and low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, and lean meats. All animal foods contain cholesterol. However, lean and low-fat choices will contain very little saturated fat. Vegetables, grains, and beans should make up the bulk of your meal plan, rounded out by low-fat, lean animal foods.

  • Choose skim or 1-percent milk and yogurt over whole or 2-percent.
  • White meat chicken, turkey, and fish are all good choices. Keep portions to no more than 3 to 6 ounces per day.
  • Lean meat can also be part of a heart-healthy diet. Limit portions to 3 to 4 ounces twice a week.
  • Soy foods, such as tofu and edamame can be a great substitute for meats high in saturated fat or other unhealthy foods.

Remember that a healthy diet can include the foods you love. And watching what you eat may keep you around longer for the people you love.