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5 Dietitian-Approved Habits for a Healthy Heart

By Lisa McCune MS, MPH, RDN, LDN

It’s never too late – or too soon – to think about your heart health. In the United States, heart disease takes the most lives every year, but there’s something you can do about that. By making proactive changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can help reduce your risk of developing heart disease – and influence others to do the same. Start the movement by adopting these five heart-healthy diet habits.

Fight the bad fat

Fat is an essential part of a heart-healthy diet. However, not all fats are created equal. Saturated fats should be limited and trans fats should be avoided as much as possible. Saturated fats can be found in dairy products (whole milk, cream), marbled meats (bacon, sausage), poultry skin and butter. Trans fats are found in many packaged foods, shortening and stick margarine, pastries and baked goods, as well as some fried foods.

Not sure if the food you’re eating contains trans fat? You should know that “ nutrition labels can list trans fat as 0 grams if the item contains less than 0.5 grams per serving. However, serving sizes in these products are not usually consistent with the amount the average person actually consumes. You should also know that “partially hydrogenated oil” is another word for trans fat. Fully hydrogenated oils also contain saturated fat. Oftentimes the label does not specify this, so it’s a good idea to limit foods with hydrogenated oils in the list of ingredients.

Help yourself to heart-healthy fats

Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are protective of your heart health. Swapping trans fats and saturated fats for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats will help keep your heart in shape. Foods high in monounsaturated fat include olive oil, avocados and nuts. Foods high in polyunsaturated fat include walnuts, sunflower seeds and soybeans, which are all sources of omega-3s,. Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that your body does not produce on its own. Therefore, you must get them through food. Other sources of omega-3s include salmon, herring and mackerel. You can also obtain omega-3s through plant-based sources such as chia, flax and pumpkin seeds.

Slash sodium

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg, or 1 teaspoon, of table salt per day. The ideal limit is 1,500 mg daily. Reducing your sodium intake can help manage blood pressure, reduce fluid retention and weight gain and reduce your risk for heart attack, stroke and kidney disease as you age. Reduce your sodium intake by limiting cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, canned soups, frozen meals and bread. Look for “reduced sodium” or “no added salt” options in packaged foods. It’s also a good idea to cut back on eating out and instead aiming to prepare meals at home. Also, try to avoid the temptation of shaking extra salt on your meal at the dinner table. There’s usually ample salt added in the kitchen during cooking.

Fuel up with fiber

Aim for 25-35 grams of fiber per day. Adequate dietary fiber can help maintain healthy cholesterol and blood glucose levels. Fiber is also important for maintaining a healthy weight and reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease. It helps you feel full longer, which reduces unnecessary snacking or overeating at meals and throughout the day. High-fiber foods include whole grains like barley, rye, oats and brown rice. You can also get plenty of fiber from fruits and vegetables, especially with their peel or skin still intact. And, of course, you know the tune: Beans, beans, the magical fruit! When choosing packaged foods, look for at least 4 grams of fiber per serving. As you’re starting to consume more fiber, note that it’s important to do so slowly (as in, don’t overdo it on fiber during every meal or all at once!) and make sure to drink plenty of water as your body adjusts.

Say adios to added sugar

Keep in mind, some sugar occurs naturally in foods like fruit and milk. No worries here. The type of sugar worth decreasing is added sugar, meaning extra sugar put into foods during the manufacturing process. Too much added sugar in the diet contributes to weight gain and increased risk for many chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The American Heart Association recommends that women limit added sugar to 6 teaspoons per day, while men should stick to no more than 9 teaspoons per day. Added sugar hides under many names within a food's ingredient list. Be sure to check the ingredients for these words: molasses, honey, syrup, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup and words ending in –ose (maltose, dextrose).

Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide healthcare recommendations. Please consult with your healthcare provider.

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