Heart disease is America’s No. 1 killer, responsible for about one in three deaths – or about 800,000 each year. It claims women and men at about the same rate, and strikes people of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
While some heart risk factors, such as family history, are out of your control, you can help keep your heart healthy by making some smart lifestyle choices – including quitting smoking (if you use tobacco), getting more exercise and eating right.
Here are eight heart-smart eating guidelines you can adopt right now:
1. Watch your weight
Being overweight is a major risk factor for heart disease, and losing even a few pounds can benefit your cardiovascular system. The best way to maintain a healthy weight is to consume the right number of calories – from healthful foods – for you.
A quick way to estimate the daily calories you need to maintain your weight is to multiply your current weight (in pounds) by 12.
To lose 1 to 2 pounds per week, cut 500 to 1,000 calories per day from that number, but don’t go below 1,200 calories. If you find you’re losing weight too rapidly or feeling very hungry, bump up your daily calorie goal slightly.
Familiarize yourself with the calorie contents of foods and what “reasonable” portions look like. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise – brisk walking, for example – nearly every day, even if you have to break it up into 10-minute intervals.
2. Eat vegetables and fruits
Research links diets rich in fruits and vegetables with a lower risk for heart disease. Eat a wide variety of each, focusing on deeply-colored types, such as spinach, carrots and berries. These tend to be more nutritious than paler picks like potatoes and corn.
3. Fill up on fiber
Aim to get the recommended amount of total fiber daily – at least 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Research shows that soluble fiber, found in oats, beans, barley and citrus, helps reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. Studies suggest that insoluble fiber – found in whole-wheat breads and cereals and vegetables – also helps protect your heart. Fiber extends the time food stays in your stomach, which may help you feel full for longer on fewer calories.
4. Hold back on unhealthy fats
Keeping a cap on saturated fats, trans fats and dietary cholesterol helps reduce risk of heart disease primarily by lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Limit your intake of saturated fats – in butter, full-fat dairy products and fatty meats – to less than 7 percent of daily calories; that’s 15 grams, if you’re consuming 2,000 calories per day. This is easily done by replacing whole-fat dairy with nonfat or 1 percent dairy products and replacing fatty meats with lean meats, fish and plant-based proteins, such as beans.
Avoid the artificial trans fats common in fast foods and processed snacks, such as crackers and cookies. (Trans-fat tip-off: “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients list.) Try to consume no more than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol daily.
5. Eat fish at least twice a week
Fish – especially “oily” kinds, such as salmon – are rich in the omega-3 fatty acids that, studies suggest, protect the heart. (Note: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency advise pregnant and nursing mothers and women who may become pregnant to avoid certain types of seafood and limit others, as most fish contain mercury, which may be harmful to developing fetuses and young children whose nervous systems are still developing.)
For men, and women who don’t plan to become pregnant, the benefits of eating fish frequently far outweigh any risks associated with mercury.
6. Limit sugary drinks and foods
Americans’ consumption of added sugars – sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup, for example – has decreased slightly in the last decade but still remains well above recommended levels. Added sugars are “empty” calories that supply few nutrients, and research links drinking lots of sugary beverages with weight gain.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily intake of added sugars to 5 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men: about 100 calories and 150 calories, respectively.
7. Keep an eye on salt
Limit daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams, or about 1 teaspoon salt; 1,500 milligrams or about ¾ teaspoon if you have heart disease. Your heart has to work harder to pump the added fluid your body retains from sodium. Reducing sodium intake can prevent hypertension and help reduce blood pressure if you’re taking medication.
8. If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation
If you consume alcohol, do so “moderately.” That’s two drinks per day for men, one drink for women. And while studies link moderate alcohol intake with reduced risk of heart disease, it doesn’t mean you should take up drinking if you currently abstain. Alcohol can be addictive and high intakes can contribute to hypertension.