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How to Eat Heart-Smart

Katherine Brooking, RD - Blogs
By Katherine Brooking, MS, RDRegistered dietitianFebruary 05, 2016
From the WebMD Archives

The statistics are scary: heart disease is responsible for 1 out of every 3 deaths in the US, making it the number one killer of American adults. Fortunately, not all the news is bad – there are things that you can do to keep your heart in good shape, like eating a healthy diet, being physically active and avoiding tobacco.

If you want to show your heart some love, make sure to include these types of foods in your diet:

Whole grains

Whole grains are one of nature’s natural heart helpers. According to research, the risk of heart disease can be reduced by more than 20-25% by including 3 daily servings of whole grains in your diet.

That’s because their nutrient-rich bran and germ contain essential nutrients, like B vitamins, fiber and antioxidants that temper chronic inflammation that can lead to heart disease. They also help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and promote stable blood glucose levels to keep type 2 diabetes at bay.

How Much: Aim for at least 3 servings a day of whole grain pasta or bread, oats, millet, or other whole grains.

Unsaturated Fats

Despite recent headlines that ‘butter is back’, if you want to do right by your heart, you’ll want to avoid butter and other artery-clogging saturated fat-rich foods. But not all fat is bad – decades of research has shown that foods rich in mono and polyunsaturated fats, like nuts, fatty fish and plant-based oils, can help keep your heart healthy.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 6% of total calories and choosing plant-based fats and oils in place of saturated fats. The AHA guidelines state that 25 to 35% of your total daily calories should come from these heart smart unsaturated sources.

To meet the AHA’s recommendations, use unsaturated fats when cooking and baking like olive or canola oil. While olive oil often gets all the attention, canola is another great option if you’re looking to make an oil change. Canola oil has the lowest levels of saturated fat and is high in monounsaturated fat, compared to other popular oils. Research reveals that the oil may help control blood sugar and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

How Much: Aim to get 25 to 35% of total calories from unsaturated fats. That equals about 55 to 77g of unsaturated fat for a 2,000-calories reference diet.


Want to cut the risk of heart disease by more than a third? Make sure that fish, like salmon, tuna, shrimp and halibut, find their way to your plate twice a week. Fish and other seafood are rich in omega-3 fats and other heart-boosting nutrients including vitamin D and selenium. A study involving hundreds of thousands of subjects showed that eating approximately one to two 3-ounce servings of fatty fish a week reduced the risk of dying from heart disease by about 36%.

But what about mercury and other contaminants often associated with seafood? While this is an area filled with controversy, evidence suggests that the benefits of moderate fish consumption (1-2 times per week) outweigh potential risks. For a list of fish that are lower in contaminants, check out this guide from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

How Much: Strive to eat at least 2 seafood servings (3-6 ounces cooked) per week.

Leafy Greens

Going green is definitely good for your heart! Diets rich in leafy greens like Swiss chard, arugula, spinach, watercress, collard greens, broccoli, kale and romaine are linked to lower rates of heart disease and inflammation. Dark leafy greens supply a significant amount of folate, a B vitamin that that helps break down an amino acid called homocysteine – an important function, since an excess of homocysteine is related to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

What’s more, leafy greens have an abundance of antioxidants that can help smooth artery linings and promote healthy circulation. They also contain high levels of potassium that can help lower blood pressure.

How Much: Aim for at least 2-3 cups of greens every day. In addition to salads, add them to omelets, smoothies or your stir-fry recipes. For a perfect sweet and savory side, try this Kale and Orange Salad.


Here’s a surprising perk to your morning cup of joe: A 2015 study published in the journal Circulation found that drinking even 1 cup of coffee per day is associated with a reduced risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. And results were similar regardless of whether people drank caffeinated or decaf coffee.

What’s more, the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans say that enjoying 3 to 5 cups a day—or 400 mg of caffeine—can be part of a healthy eating pattern.

How Much: For most healthy individuals, enjoy 2-3 cups of coffee per day.

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About the Author
Katherine Brooking, MS, RD

Katherine Brooking is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition education from Columbia University. She is dedicated to helping people have better health and live richer lives through sound nutrition and good lifestyle choices.

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