If you’re thinking about changing your lifestyle to support heart health, your diet is a great place to start. Thankfully, this guide will help you develop a healthy diet for your heart, which can help you reduce your health risks and even improve your outlook.
While it’s always important to talk to your doctor about your health needs, this guide can provide some simple tips to get you started.
How Food Can Support Heart Health
Food is an essential part of heart health because of calorie content, fat, sodium, and other factors. What you consume determines your risk of heart disease, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and even diabetes.
Certain foods, such as saturated fat, can increase bad cholesterol, block your arteries, and could even cause a heart attack. While the public is becoming aware of the dangers of bad fats, just how much can you consume?
According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease has several symptoms including shortness of breath, chest pain, and nausea. Your diet is one of the risk factors for heart disease. With the right foods, you can support your heart health while watching your weight, limiting sodium, and eliminating bad fats.
The hardest part about changing up your diet is not knowing what to eat, how much to eat, and what to avoid. Luckily, there are tons of tips that make adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle easier during the holidays and all year round.
What to Eat for Heart Health
Here’s an overview of the must-have foods for optimal heart health.
On any heart-healthy foods list, you will find good fats for the heart and overall well-being. These hearty oils are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated fat is a central part of the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in olive oil. This type of fat may reduce diabetes and heart disease risk when used as a substitute for saturated fat. Cholesterol levels and bad (LDL) cholesterol may also decrease as a result of consuming monounsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats are “essential fats,” which our bodies require to function. This fat builds cell membranes, and the body needs these fats for muscle movement, inflammation, and blood clotting. Omega-3 fatty acids are the most common polyunsaturated fats, which come from specific seeds and fish.
Examples of these fats include:
- Olive oil
- Sesame, sunflower, flax seeds
- Canola, soybean, corn oil
Fruits and Vegetables
Vegetables and fruits contain various minerals, making them critical components of a heart-healthy diet.
Vegetables contain potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate, thiamin, niacin, and many other vitamins and minerals. Potassium and dietary fiber, in particular, give your body essential nutrients for everyday activities.
Fruits are also essential for a heart-healthy diet, containing different vitamins and nutrients. Whole fruits have tons of vitamin C, potassium, and folate and are low in fat. Fruit juices are good alternatives too, but they must be 100% juice. They will lack the fiber, however, compared to whole fruits.
Vegetables and fruits to consider in your heart-healthy foods list include:
- Dark leafy greens such as bok choy, watercress, collard greens, broccoli, spinach, kale
- Low-glycemic fruits like apples, oranges, banana, pineapple, watermelon
- Canned or fresh with low sodium contents
- Fruit juices with no added sugar, such as apple and orange juice
Lean Protein Sources
Protein is vital for heart-healthy eating, but the type of protein matters. Whether it’s poultry, fish, or beans, there are many categories to choose from, and each can be a staple of your diet.
Protein is crucial for the regulation of our hormones, enzymes, and vitamins. Protein is a type of nutrient that provides calories, like fat and carbohydrates. Our bodies need protein to maintain muscles, bone, cartilage, blood, and skin health.
Low-fat protein sources are ideal for a heart-healthy diet, such as lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and eggs.
Cold-water fish such as salmon and tuna are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fats that aid bodily functions. Other cold-water fish such as mackerel, trout, and sardines are also excellent choices. Sardines, in particular, are packed with Vitamin B12, an essential vitamin for the nervous system.
In all, the protein sources to include in your heart-healthy eating are:
- Fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as coldwater fishes, including salmon, tuna, sardine, mackerel, trout
- Lean meats that are 90-95% lean, such as lean ground beef or skinless chicken breasts
- Legumes such as black beans, chickpeas, split peas, soybeans, and tofu
- Eggs and low-fat dairy
- Limited red meat due to high saturated fats (ex. beef and lamb)
- Nuts such as walnuts, cashews, peanuts, pistachios
Whole grains contain nutrients, including folate, fiber, iron, zinc, copper, selenium, vitamin A, and more. Today, refined grains remove multiple nutrients, which are not ideal for a heart-healthy lifestyle. The same refined grains go through an “enrichment” process, which adds nutrients to the product, making refined grains not suitable for a hearty diet and should be limited.
Whole grains to consume are:
- Oats (available in steel-cut or regular)
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat flour, bread, and pasta
- Barley, buckwheat
Foods You Should Limit in a Heart-Healthy Diet
To have optimal cardiovascular health, limiting harmful foods is as essential as eating the right foods.
High saturated foods are best limited to once a week or multiple times a month, including beef and lamb. Large amounts of saturated fat lead to an increase in cholesterol, which can build up in the arteries.
Dairy is high in both fat and saturated fat, and choosing low-fat options or fat-free is preferable.
If you drink alcohol, moderation is essential for overall health.
Low sodium foods are in your best interest, as many canned goods, for instance, have higher levels of sodium, which can increase blood pressure.
Processed and Refined Foods
Avoiding fast food and processed sugar is a helpful first step toward a healthier heart. Some fast-food restaurants that are fast-casual, such as Chipotle, do have healthier options. If fast food is your only option, opt for the least-processed choices on the menu.
Steering clear of high saturated-fat baked goods and sauces is another smart heart strategy. Make a habit of reading labels, as many foods already have saturated fat. Consuming sauces and snacks with high saturated fat is high in calories and would put the heart at risk.
Also, avoid refined sugar and trans fats. It’s typically best to choose butter over alternatives like margarine, since margarine is a hydrogenated oil. As a general guideline, opt to eat real food, which is more satiating than processed or alternatives.
Other Ways to Support Heart Health in Fall and Winter
Counting calories and following your macros is beneficial to begin a heart-healthy lifestyle, no matter the time of year.
Many people use apps, such as My Fitness Pal, to track calories and macronutrients. Online caloric assessments are available if you do not know how much to consume or your limits.
For a better idea of whether you’re consuming enough nutrients, try a food calculator. You can calculate the amount of carbs, fat, and protein you can eat daily with the help of an app or website, or with a piece of paper and math.
Control Portion Sizes
Proper portion sizes can be tricky to understand, so paying attention to the ratio on your plate is a necessity for healthy eating.
There are several tips and tricks to get a hold of your portion sizes, as everyone is different.
A closed fist can help you measure the general amount of protein or carbs you should consume. A fist equals roughly 1 cup or a ½ cup depending on the food. A handful of vegetables also tends to be 1 cup. When you open your hand, the palm can also show how much protein to eat.
There are plates available that divide the vegetables, carbs, and protein if you want to be more strict. Follow a guide to determine your daily allowances.
Food scales are widely popular and affordable, which come in handy for weighing food by the gram and drinks by the ounces. However, when it comes to holiday eating with the family, a visual aid might be better than lugging a food scale around.
Kick Bad Habits
Habits like smoking or drinking in excess can be harmful to a healthy lifestyle. For optimal results, experts recommend no alcohol. Eating junk food or processed foods as snacks may stall your progress or cancel any healthy habits you practice.
That said, holidays are notoriously stressful, so it can be tempting to stick with your ingrained habits all season.
But becoming conscious of your habits can lead to better success in heart-healthy eating. Swapping soft drinks for water or chips for fresh veggies are small changes that can add up. And the sooner you start, the easier it will be to stick with it.
Heart healthy eating isn’t the only habit that’s good for your heart. Exercise is another component of a heart-healthy lifestyle. Most people do not get enough exercise, especially in the colder months. But you can still keep your cardio levels up by taking the stairs when possible, working out at home with streaming fitness programs, or going for walks before the chilly weather sets in (you can also opt to bundle up against it).
Depending on your goals and the amount of time you have free, you may want a moderate or even more rigorous activity. If you are just starting, moderate exercise for adults is about 150 minutes a week of walking and two or more days of strength building.
Get High-Quality Sleep
Most adults require 7-9 hours of sleep a day, with eight hours a day being the sweet spot. To get enough sleep, one must have what is called “sleep hygiene.” Good quality sleep hygiene consists of:
- Sleep in a quiet, dim/darkroom, at a comfortable temperature. For the best results, the room must be as dark as possible.
- Avoid large meals before bedtime.
- Avoid using your smartphone or computer in bed, as the blue light can ruin your sleep ability. Blue light filters are available to reduce the blue light.
- If you do not feel tired, consider exercise hours before bed or light activity such as walking or yoga.
- Every day, get ready for sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time to get into a pattern.
Fall and Winter Tips for Heart Health
In addition to a healthy heart diet, other ways to live healthy in the fall and winter consist of:
- Mental health: It’s always important to take care of your mental health. If you can, find a therapist near you, or engage in activities that will help your well-being and reduce stress.
- Drink enough water: About eight cups of water a day is ideal, depending on your weight. Doctors recommend half your body weight in ounces.
- Teeth care: The holidays consist of various foods that a sweet tooth cannot ignore. Reduce or limit cravings and practice proper dental hygiene.
- Stay safe from viruses: Wash your hands and avoid exposure to germs when possible.
- Supplementation: If you feel you are not getting enough nutrients, consult your doctor and consider taking a multivitamin.
Final Thoughts on Heart-Healthy Eating in Fall & Winter
Eating healthy can be challenging all year, but it’s especially so in fall and winter. With family get-togethers, free-for-all holiday dinners, and the cold weather keeping everyone cooped up indoors, it may seem intimidating to turn over a heart-healthy leaf.
But with these guidelines and tips in mind, you can start making small changes that add up over time. After all, now is the best time to start overhauling your habits and taking steps toward a healthier heart.
Alliance Health is for informational purposes only. Alliance health does not provide medical advice. This website should not be used to prevent, diagnose, or treat any medical condition or disease. For health information, see a medical professional.