The 7 Golden Rules of Heart-Healthy Eating, According to Cardiologists

Photo: Getty Images/Dougal Waters
Fact: cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. Want to live a long time? Protect your heart. Genetic predisposition certainly plays a role, but there's a lot in your control—including what you put on your plate. What you eat is directly linked to your heart health. We asked three cardiologists to share the heart-healthy eating recommendations they give to everyone who walks into their offices.

The cardiologist-approved golden rules for heart-healthy eating

1. Read the nutrition label

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's so easy to get lured in by clever marketing and flashy packaging that the nutrition label on foods often gets ignored. "Nutrition facts labels contain valuable information needed to help you choose food wisely," says Aurelio Duran, MD, of the Orlando Health Heart Institute. "Calories, fat, sodium, and protein are some of the information to consider." Avoid foods high in saturated fat and sodium, which is definitely bad news for your heart, he says.

2. avoid added sugars

While you're eyeing the nutritional label, Dr. Duran says to be conscious of added sugars, including the various pseudonyms for sugar that companies use to deceive consumers. "Added sugars increase risk for diabetes and other heart disease risk factors," he says. "People who eat large amounts of added sugar—25 percent or more of their calories—have double the chance of dying from heart disease than those who limit their added sugar to less than 10 percent of their total calories." By minimizing added sugar, you're doing a big favor for your cardiovascular health with a single action.

3. ignore dieting fads

The trendy eating plan of the moment will come and go, but Matthew Budoff, MD, professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, says there's one piece of healthy eating advice that has withstood the test of time: enjoying a wide variety of foods in moderation. "This is what's most important," he says. "Those that can moderate their food intake will have the greatest long term success."

4. be mindful of your protein choices

Another one of Dr. Budoff's heart healthy tips is choosing what he calls "smart proteins." "This means eating less red meat, and more lean meats, which will lead to better long term outcomes," he says. Some examples of heart healthy proteins include: poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, and nuts.

5. prioritize produce at every meal

Sure, you've been told to eat your veggies since you were a kid, but Dr. Budoff says you can't make a rulebook of heart-healthy eating without including this advice. All fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, which are linked to lowering cholesterol. In order to make sure you're getting enough, a good rule of thumb is to fill 50 percent of your plate with vegetables.

6. Fill up on omega-3s

Omega-3s are often part of foods for your brain health, but Step One Foods founder Elizabeth Klodas, MD, says they're good for your heart, too. "A healthy heart thrives on whole food fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids, so include plenty of whole grain oats, flax, chia, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables in your diet," she says. It's especially something to be aware of if you're vegan; seeds and nuts can be heart-healthy staples if you adhere to this lifestyle.

7. focus on making small healthy changes

Dr. Klodas emphasizes that prioritizing heart heath shouldn't be overwhelming and the best way to go about making changes is by starting small. "Be realistic. It’s not about eating a perfect diet, it's about making better choices, no matter how small," she says. "A clinical trial demonstrated that even tiny dietary changes can yield significant cholesterol reductions in as little as 30 days."

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