To live a long life, you need to protect the heart.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is responsible for about one in four deaths in the nation, claiming more than 600,000 lives each year.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to protect your heart, from exercising regularly to quitting smoking.
Eating a good diet is one of the most important ways to stay heart healthy, says Penny M. Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.
“Healthy eating helps manage and control major risk factors for cardiovascular disease,” she says.
For example, eating healthful foods helps prevent obesity. It also lowers levels of LDL cholesterol—the so-called “bad” cholesterol—and helps maintain healthy blood pressure and blood glucose readings.
What to eat
The American Heart Association urges you to make the following changes to your diet:
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. These foods have plenty of fiber, minerals and vitamins. Plus, they are low in calories and can help you control your weight and blood pressure.
- Choose lean meats and poultry. These types of meat are much better for your heart than red meat. It is best to prepare and eat them without the skin, and without adding saturated fats and trans fats, according to the AHA.
- Eat fish twice weekly. The AHA recommends eating fish at least twice weekly, and particularly recommends eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lower the risk of death from coronary artery disease. Oily fish such as herring, salmon and trout are best.
- Look for low-fat dairy products. Choose 1 percent or fat-free dairy products, which are higher in nutrients and lower in unhealthy fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and calories.
What to avoid
The AHA also emphasizes the importance of avoiding certain harmful dietary habits, including:
- Reduce intake of saturated fat. To keep your cholesterol low, you should not consume saturated fat in amounts that exceed 5 percent to 6 percent of your total calories. That is about 13 grams of saturated fat in a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.
- Do not add salt to foods. Restricting your daily intake to between 1,500 and 2,400 milligrams a day can help keep your blood pressure lower.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation. Excessive drinking can damage your heart. Men should have no more than two drinks a day, and women should limit themselves to one.
- Reduce your intake of sodium and added sugars. Excessive sodium intake can raise blood pressure, while consuming too much sugar increase the risk of obesity.
This last point is particularly important, Kris-Etherton says. She urges you to limit your intake of processed foods, which tend to be very high in sodium and added sugars.
Added sugars are particularly dangerous, she says, with sugar-sweetened desserts representing the top source of unnecessary calories in the American diet.
“We are eating way too much sugar-sweetened desserts.,” she says.
Sodas, cookies, cakes, pies and ice cream are OK when consumed in moderation, she says. The key is to keep portions small, and to eat these foods occasionally – at your wedding reception or your child’s birthday party, for example.
“That doesn’t mean you sit down every night at 9 o’clock and have a big bowl of ice cream before you go to bed,” she says.
Kris-Etherton acknowledges that avoiding tasty but unhealthful foods can be difficult.
But she says the key is to think strategically about reducing your intake of such foods.
As an example, she suggests having a single piece of thin-crust pizza instead of eating an entire “personal-sized” thick-crust pizza loaded with unhealthy toppings.
“People just have to be wiser with their food choices,” she says.