Heart-Healthy Diet: 3 Little Changes to Make Right Now

Your arteries will thank you.

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A nutrient-rich diet is one of the most powerful weapons in the fight against heart disease. If your diet mainstays include bacon, triple-decker sandwiches, steak dinners, and creamy platefuls of pasta, transforming the way you eat may seem too intimidating to even consider, but even small, iterative changes can make a significance difference in your heart health. Experts Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutritionist and cookbook author in New York City, and Paul Knoepflmacher, MD, a clinical instructor in medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, share their simple, yet effective, heart-healthy diet tips.

1. Eat more fruits and veggies. Eating a variety of produce—about eight servings a day, per the American Heart Association—can do wonders for your weight and overall health. “Fruits and vegetables are super high in nutrients that help to lower your risk of heart disease,” says Largeman-Roth. You may also want to consider the DASH eating plan—a diet full of heart-healthy produce, nuts, grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein, with a special focus on blood pressure-lowering nutrients, like potassium, fiber, and folate.

Heart-healthy diet tip: Add a serving of fruit or veggies to your breakfast, lunch, or dinner each day, slowly working your way up to a serving (or two!) at each meal. Here are more expert tricks to incorporate more fruits and veggies into your diet.

2. Eat more seafood. “Seafood is the richest source that we have of omega-3 fatty acids,” says Largeman-Roth. “Omega-3 fatty acids really do protect the heart.” Omega-3s help to lower LDL cholesterol, and also boost HDL cholesterol, which is the cardio-protective type of cholesterol, she says. Omega-3 fatty acids also decrease triglyceride levels and lower blood pressure (slightly). Largeman-Roth recommends eating two servings (about 3.5 ounces each) of heart-healthy fatty fish per week, like salmon, herring or albacore tuna.

Heart-healthy diet tip: Switch up your go-to protein, like chicken or pork, with fish twice a week. Try adding canned tuna to your salad at lunch, or sneaking some salmon into a casserole or pasta. (Here’s how to buy the best cuts of fish.)

3. Cut back on processed foods. “Processed foods tends to be high in fats, particularly trans fats which are damaging to the heart,” says Dr. Knoepflmacher. Trans fats are usually found in fried food and pastries, like french fries, pizza dough, and cookies. Trans fats and saturated fats are bad for your heart health in general, but they’re specifically damaging to cholesterol levels, because they increase “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood. (Here are more heart-smart ways to lower cholesterol.)

Processed foods, like chips, sodas, and milk chocolate, also tend to have a lot of sodium and sugar. (Just check out these foods that are surprisingly high in sodium.) “In some cases we know [sodium] can increase people’s blood pressure and can make heart failure worse,” says Dr. Knoepflmacher.

“Sugar is a villain in the sense that it increases the risk of what we call metabolic syndrome,” says Dr. Knoepflmacher. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of metabolic disorders, like diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, which are all potent risk factors for heart disease. “If you can reduce your risk for that, you’re really reducing your heart disease,” he says. (Test your sugar smarts: Can you guess which “healthy” foods have more sugar?)

Heart-healthy diet tip: Got a daily soda habit? Switch a couple of your fizzy drinks for seltzer water with lemon a couple days a week, then work your way up to making the swap on most days of the week. If you’re a sucker for chips or chocolate, try less-processed takes on your favorites, like switching to home-baked potato chips or popcorn, or having a square of dark chocolate instead of a handful of M&Ms.