Find out what you need to know about eating a heart-healthy diet. Follow these basic guidelines, and you’ll be on your way to optimum heart health.
Credit: Photo: Oxmoor House

Be calorie conscious to control your weight

Weight control is important in the prevention and treatment of heart disease. Excess weight makes the heart work harder, causing increased blood pressure. It also raises blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels and lowers HDL (“good”) cholesterol. A modest weight loss of at least 10 pounds has been shown to decrease a person’s risk for heart disease as well as diabetes.

To maintain a healthy weight, balance calories from foods and beverages with calories expended. The secret to this delicate balance is knowing how to determine adequate portion sizes. Cooking Light is working with the Partnership for a Healthier America and USDA’s MyPlate to give anyone looking for healthier options access to thousands of recipes that will help them create healthy, tasty plates. For more information about creating a healthy plate, visit Find recipes at

Know your fats

Here’s what you need to know about fitting fats into your diet.

  • Monounsaturated Fats: Liquid at room temperature, these plant-based fats can lower cholesterol when used in place of saturated fat in the diet.
    Sources: Canola, olive, and peanut oils; peanuts; pecans; and avocados.
  • Polyunsaturated Fats: These plant- and fish-derived fats can lower cholesterol when they replace saturated fat in the diet. Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna contain omega-3 fatty acids, a group of polyunsaturated fats that keep the heart healthy, even when consumed in small amounts.
    Sources: Vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, soybean, corn, and sesame oils; sunflower seeds; soybeans; fatty fish such as tuna, mackerel, and salmon; and most nuts.
  • Saturated Fats: Concentrated mostly in animal products, these solid fats raise harmful LDL cholesterol and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
    Sources: Beef, lamb, pork, bacon, cheese, full-fat yogurt, butter, and whole milk. Snack chips and bakery items made with tropical oils such as coconut, palm, and palm kernel also contain these fats, which are solid at room temperature.

The key with saturated fats is to choose wisely and use them in moderation. For example, use only small amounts of cheese to heighten a dish’s flavor, or make vegetables the main feature of the dish rather than meat. If you eat red meat as a main course, stick to the recommended serving size—3 ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards on your plate. For dairy products, choosing 1% or fat-free options helps limit the amount of saturated fat in your diet.

  • Trans Fats: Produced when liquid oils are processed into solid shortenings, trans fats (also known as partially hydrogenated oils) raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower HDL ( “good”) cholesterol.
    Sources: Foods can harbor trans fats if they’re made with partially hydrogenated oils. Since January 2006, the Food and Drug Administration has required all food manufacturers to indicate the amount of trans fat in a serving of food. (Food with less than one-half gram of trans fat per serving can be labeled “trans fat–free.”) Some meat and dairy products contain trace amounts of naturally occurring trans fats. It’s unknown whether these fats have the same harmful effects on your health as manufactured trans fats.

Slash sodium

For most people, the more sodium you consume, the higher your blood pressure will be. And as blood pressure jumps, so does the risk for heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium to 1,500 milligrams per day.[pagebreak]

Go for whole grains

Research shows that eating just 21/2 servings of whole grains per day is enough to lower your risk for heart disease. (One serving equals a slice of 100% whole-wheat bread or 1/3 cup cooked brown rice.) And it appears that greater whole-grain intake is associated with a decreased risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

Focus on healthy foods, and strive for variety

To fight heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends eating an assortment of nutritious foods daily. Make an effort to follow these diet guidelines to get the nutrients your body needs and add variety to your diet.

  • Eat at least two 3.5-ounce servings a week of fish, preferably oily fish such as salmon, tuna, or mackerel.
  • Consume at least 4 servings of nuts, legumes, and seeds a week.
  • Select fiber-rich whole grains and consume at least 3 servings a day.
  • Limit sugar-sweetened beverages to no more than 450 calories (36 ounces) a week.
  • Limit processed meats to no more than 2 servings a week.
  • Limit saturated fat and trans fat to less than 7% and 1%, respectively, of total energy intake.
  • Choose fruits and vegetables in all the colors of the rainbow—be sure to eat at least 4 1/2 cups a day.