By Kelly Daigle Millan
It is no secret that protecting your heart is important to your overall health. According to the American Heart Association1 and the CDC,2 heart disease is still the leading cause of death for all genders in the US despite major advances in education around smoking and improvements to heart related medications and surgeries over the past The great thing is that we can help protect our hearts through our dietary and exercise behaviors. Here, we’re sharing ways that you can eat your way to a healthier heart by incorporating some key practices into your daily meals.
The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans3 endorses three healthy eating patterns:
The DASH diet pattern: characterized by low sodium
The Mediterranean diet pattern: characterized by consumption of fish/seafood, lean meats, nuts/seeds, and healthy oils
Vegetarian diet pattern: characterized by consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains
There are three main heart healthy takeaways these diet patterns can give us that can be incorporated into any way that you choose to eat: reducing sodium (or salt), increasing omega-3 fat, and increasing fiber. These practices are beneficial to our heart health by reducing blood pressure, reducing inflammation, and lowering cholesterol.
The most common way that we consume sodium is through salt. Salt adds flavor to meals, but it can also act as a preservative. This is why it is so common to see high salt in packaged and preserved foods. Sodium tends to attract water in the blood, and as the volume of water in the blood increases, it pushes out against the arteries. This is how high sodium intake can lead to increased blood pressure. Decreasing sodium can reduce blood pressure and reduce risk for heart disease.4 A good rule of thumb is to take a look at the nutrition label and ensure packaged foods you buy have <200 mg/serving of sodium to help keep your total daily sodium intake between 1500-2300 mg.
Omega-3s are a type of fatty acid that humans can’t make on their own, but are important for our bodies, so we have to consume them from dietary sources. Eating foods rich in omega-3s like fatty fish (DHA and EPA) and plant oils and walnuts (ALA) can reduce the risk of heart disease.5 Omega-3s protect the heart by reducing inflammation and reducing vascular constriction.
Fiber comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber (found in oats, beans, barley, apples, eggplant, potatoes, peas, edamame) can help reduce cholesterol in the blood. It does this by getting sticky in the gut, which helps pull out cholesterol in bile and fat during digestion. This leads to less cholesterol absorption and to the liver calling for more cholesterol from the blood to help replace what is excreted for new bile. In this way, soluble fiber intake can reduce overall blood cholesterol, which can reduce the risk for plaque buildup and other heart problems.6 You may have seen on a box of Cheerio’s that they help lower cholesterol, and this is because they are made from oats - a great source of soluble fiber!
These are just a few dietary tips for protecting your heart health. Keeping these in mind at meals no matter what type of eating pattern you follow can be helpful in taking care of your ticker. Always remember to speak to your doctor or dietitian before making any major changes to your diet!
Benjamin EJ, Muntner P, Alonso A, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2019 update: A report from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2019; 139: e56–e528.
Cook NR, Cutler JA, Obarzanek E, et al. Long term effects of dietary sodium reduction on cardiovascular disease outcomes: observational follow-up of the trials of hypertension prevention (TOHP). BMJ (Clinical research ed). 2007;334(7599):885-888. Accessed September 15, 2020. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.simmons.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cmedm&AN=17449506&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Chaddha A, Eagle KA. Cardiology Patient Page. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Heart Health. Circulation. 2015;132(22):e350-e352. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.015176
Tosh SM, Bordenave N. Emerging science on benefits of whole grain oat and barley and their soluble dietary fibers for heart health, glycemic response, and gut microbiota. Nutrition reviews. 2020;78(Supplement_1):13-20. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuz085