The Right Diet for Heart Health
There are many benefits to a healthy diet, and heart health is one of the most important. Find out which foods can improve heart health.
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
For maximum heart health, you need to eat a well-balanced diet. But what does that really mean? “Try a diet low in saturated fat and high in fiber,” recommends Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, adjunct professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. Here’s how to put such a diet in place.
Diet for Heart Health: Get Plenty of Fiber
Fiber can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of diabetes (a risk factor for heart disease) and certain types of cancer. “We recommend about 25 grams of fiber a day, for men a bit more. It’s based on your weight,” Young says. “Most Americans eat much, much less than that. If you follow a good diet, you’ll get enough, but so many of us don’t.”
The best way to include fiber in your diet is to eat a variety of whole grains and a mixture of fruits and veggies that have both soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber helps clear out cholesterol from your bloodstream. Good sources of soluble fiber include oatmeal, barley, dried beans, and peas; insoluble fiber is found in vegetables like beets and brussels sprouts, as well as whole-grain bread.
Diet for Heart Health: The Role of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates should be 50 to 60 percent of your diet. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, get your carbohydrates from legumes, whole-grain breads and pastas, and brown rice. Carbohydratesfrom these sources are considered good because they offer you nutrients, vitamins, and fiber, in addition to the calories.
However, Young explains that carbohydrates are often vehicles for saturated fats like butter, sour cream, cream cheese, and dips and spreads. That’s not good news because saturated fat increases your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol. So you want to watch what you put on your carbs, and how much of them you eat.
- Eat the right carbs and the right fats. While too much LDL cholesterol is bad news, replacing all the fat in your diet with carbohydrates is not the answer either. “A diet too high in carbs and too low in fats will decrease the HDL cholesterol,” says Young. The HDL cholesterol, found in certain good (non-saturated) fats, is actually good for your heart.
- Understand the role of triglycerides. Fruits and vegetables contain carbohydrates and are jam-packed with nutrients that your body needs. Other simple carbohydrates, like breads, cakes, and cookies made from white, refined flour, have less nutritional value. After we eat, our bodies turn carbohydrates, fats, and protein into triglycerides, the chemical that our cells use to give us energy. We need some triglycerides to fuel us throughout the day. But too much of this chemical has been found to increase the risk of heart disease. “It depends on the type of carb,” Young says. “White bread, for instance, elevates the triglycerides.”
Diet for Heart Health: Vitamins for the Heart
While many people swear by vitamins and supplements, there’s not much evidence to support the idea that any particular vitamin is good for the heart. “There was a lot of talk about vitamin E, and it didn’t really pan out,” Young says, “and the folates, B-6, B-12 — these vitamins didn’t pan out either.”
“As they say, there are no quick fixes and no miracles,” Young adds. Most of us can get all the nutrients our hearts need from a well-balanced diet — full of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.