How to Build a Heart Healthy Diet
Nutrition is one of the most powerful tools you have to influence your health, not only because of what food contains, but the frequency and amount that we eat. Learning how to build a heart healthy diet is extremely important. Based on data estimates from the USDA’s food consumption and nutrient intake, the average American consumes 1,996 pounds of food per year, which equates to roughly 5lbs per day! So here are some tips for how to build a heart healthy diet.
Each time we eat is an opportunity to either make a “health deposit” or a “health withdrawal” depending on the food choice. When we eat whole real food that our body systems recognize, it influences activity in the cells that reduce inflammation, and protect us from disease.Food commonly consumed on the “Standard American Diet” (SAD diet), on the other hand, is notorious for generating inflammation, dysregulating blood sugar, and being less stable particles for making new cells.
When it comes to heart health, research has found that focusing on single foods that are considered “cardioprotective” is not as powerful as shifting the diet pattern as a whole
(1). This means it’s not only about including more “heart healthy” foods, but also eliminating or avoiding problematic foods.
Here are five foundational components of creating a sustainable heart health eating pattern.
Wild caught, cold water fish
Cold water fatty fish are one of few food groups with high amounts of essential omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA). The body does not produce these fatty acids efficiently on its own, so it must be obtained through diet. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA have been extensively studied for their benefits in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease, and are well recognized for their ability to reduce inflammation, positively impact weight, reduce coagulation and optimize blood lipids or cholesterol (2).
We recommend choosing smaller fish to avoid contamination of heavy metals, such as:
- Shellfish (like oysters or shrimp)
If you are not a fan of fish, taking a fish oil or Algae supplement is another option for making sure you are getting your daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids. Consult with a functional medicine practitioner before choosing your supplement as you want to make sure you are choosing a high-quality brand.
Increasing the amount and variety of vegetables in your diet is an easy strategy to improve overall health. Vegetables, especially leafy greens are known for being rich in Folate and Vitamin K, nutrients that play an important role in protecting your arteries. In addition, vegetables provide many different plant compounds that act as antioxidants, which help protect against cellular damage and inflammation.
When it comes to heart disease, vegetable consumption has even demonstrated a protective effect in male smokers! Despite smoking (a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease) high vegetable consumption was found to lower risk of heart disease compared to smokers who ate a diet low in vegetables (4).
Another study found that a diet high in leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables resulted in a 16% percent reduction in incidents of cardiovascular disease (5).
Some heart-healthy veggies to choose include:
- Collard greens
Vegetables and greens go great in salads, but many can also be sauted, stir-fried, or roasted to add different texture and flavor variety!
When it comes to fruit, especially in the context of heart disease, we want to choose varieties that are lowest in sugar, and highest in beneficial nutrients and fiber. Berries certainly take the show here. Studies have shown that berries may positively impact heart health by improving blood pressure, improving vessel function, improving cholesterol and reducing inflammation (6).
Berries are low glycemic, which means they don’t cause a big rise or “spike” in your blood sugar. Maintaining a balanced blood sugar is an important strategy in optimizing heart health, as large swings in blood sugar is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular events (7).
What might be the best about berries is that they are a great way to satisfy a sweet tooth without the guilt!
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are a nutrient dense snack option that provide a savory, crunchy alternative to less healthy items like chips, crackers, or french fries. In a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers found that increasing nut consumption by just .5 serving a day demonstrated decreased risk for heart disease and stroke (8).
Since they’re balanced in healthy fats, protein, and fiber, eating nuts and seeds results in blood sugar stabilization and increased satiety. In addition, they’re also a great source of minerals like magnesium and potassium, which help balance blood pressure, and rich in antioxidants that help protect against vascular damage and inflammation.
Although nuts and seeds are calorically dense foods, regular consumption is correlated with lower weight, so don’t hesitate to grab a serving (approximately one handful) a day – there are so many benefits waiting for you!
Recommendations of dietary fat have shifted significantly in the last 10-20 years, which has led to significant confusion or even contradiction in understanding the role of dietary fat and cardiovascular disease.
Some of the most notable changes include:
- Dietary cholesterol is no longer restricted
- Trans fat rich foods like margarine, once touted heart healthy, is now known to increase heart disease risk
- Saturated fat still holds some debate, however, several meta-analyses have failed to demonstrate saturated fat as a cause of heart disease (9). In fact, Canada has removed saturated fat limitation from its dietary guidelines and shifted focus to on overall dietary pattern.
So, here’s the takeaway: fat is an important component of a healthful diet. Fat supports the health of your brain, your cellular membranes, hormones, and assimilation of fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K) from what you eat. Quality fat sources can reduce risk of disease, especially heart disease.
When it comes to dietary fat you want to focus on balancing the following sources:
- Organic, whole foods (fish, quality source protein, nuts, seeds, olives, avocado, etc.)
- Be mindful to avoid highly refined seed and vegetable oils (peanut, corn, soybean, canola, etc.). Not only are they high pro-inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids, they are chemically processed, stored in plastics, and oftentimes, highly oxidized because of light exposure in clear packaging.
- When it comes to cooking, avocado oil is your best for high heat.
- Olive oil is a great regular addition, as it’s rich in antioxidants. However it is best to leave un-heated and be reserved to be added to foods once cooked, or to salads.
Properly prepared beans can be a healthy dietary choice. Not only do beans provide a protein source for those who desire a plant based option, they are also rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. In fact, beans contain the highest amounts of soluble fiber of any whole food, which can be very helpful in not only keeping your blood sugar in check, but also acts like a sponge in your gut to bind up toxins and recycled hormones and ensure they are eliminated.
Considering heart disease specifically, beans are rich in antioxidants and magnesium, which can help lower blood pressure. They’re also rich in folate which can help reduce vascular inflammation.
Lastly, once cooked and cooled, beans develop another unique characteristic: resistant starch. Resistant starch is a carbohydrate that cannot be digested in the small intestine like a typical starch, and therefore aren’t absorbed and do not affect blood sugar. Instead, resistant starch becomes food for gut microbes in the large intestine and can support a healthy microbiome.
Beans make a great addition to soups or salad, or they can be eaten as the perfect side dish!
The evidence between your diet and heart health are clear. What you eat directly impacts the health of your heart. Starting to include these nutrient-rich foods is a step in the right direction.
Interested in learning more about the benefits of nutrition? Check out our blog “How to Use Nutrition to Improve Your Health and Increase Longevity.”
(1) Casas, R., Castro-Barquero, S., Estruch, R., & Sacanella, E. (2018). Nutrition and Cardiovascular Health. International journal of molecular sciences, 19(12), 3988. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19123988
(2)Swanson, D., Block, R., & Mousa, S. A. (2012). Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 3(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.111.000893
(3) Jayedi, A., & Shab-Bidar, S. (2020). Fish Consumption and the Risk of Chronic Disease: An Umbrella Review of Meta-Analyses of Prospective Cohort Studies. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 11(5), 1123–1133. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmaa029
(4) Dauchet, L., Montaye, M., Ruidavets, J. B., Arveiler, D., Kee, F., Bingham, A., … & Dallongeville, J. (2010). Association between the frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption and cardiovascular disease in male smokers and non-smokers. European journal of clinical nutrition, 64(6), 578-586.
(5) Pollock R. L. (2016). The effect of green leafy and cruciferous vegetable intake on the incidence of cardiovascular disease: A meta-analysis. JRSM cardiovascular disease, 5, 2048004016661435. https://doi.org/10.1177/2048004016661435
(6) Rodriguez-Mateos, A., Heiss, C., Borges, G., & Crozier, A. (2014). Berry (poly) phenols and cardiovascular health. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 62(18), 3842-3851.
(7)Monnier, L., Mas, E., Ginet, C., Michel, F., Villon, L., Cristol, J. P., & Colette, C. (2006). Activation of oxidative stress by acute glucose fluctuations compared with sustained chronic hyperglycemia in patients with type 2 diabetes. Jama, 295(14), 1681-1687.
(8) Liu, X., Guasch‐Ferré, M., Drouin‐Chartier, J. P., Tobias, D. K., Bhupathiraju, S. N., Rexrode, K. M., … & Li, Y. (2020). Changes in nut consumption and subsequent cardiovascular disease risk among US men and women: 3 large prospective cohort studies. Journal of the American Heart Association, 9(7), e013877.
(9) Liu, A. G., Ford, N. A., Hu, F. B., Zelman, K. M., Mozaffarian, D., & Kris-Etherton, P. M. (2017). A healthy approach to dietary fats: understanding the science and taking action to reduce consumer confusion. Nutrition journal, 16(1), 53. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-017-0271-4