Ask a doctor or a dietitian about the value of good nutrition, and you’re bound to get a lesson on the heart. Indeed, nutrition experts seem to be fixated on the organ. “This is good for the heart,” they’ll say, usually followed with, “And this is bad for the heart.” There’s a reason for all of this heart-talk: Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in the United States, and the risk is even higher for Blacks. However, many Americans could steer clear of it by making a few simple changes in their eating habits early on.
Why does your diet matter so much to your heart? Mainly because your blood cholesterol matters. Your choices at the dinner table and the drive-through can help lower the amount of cholesterol in your blood — and your risks of heart disease and stroke — or send that level soaring. (Almost all heart attacks and strokes start when cholesterol sticks to the lining of blood vessels, a process called atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.) Those food choices will also determine whether you get the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that can keep your heart and arteries strong and protect them from damage.
What’s the best diet for preventing heart disease?
No single meal plan or menu is best for safeguarding the heart. But there are guidelines you can use to create a diet that’s right for you. For some sound advice backed up by science, take a look at the current guidelines from the American Heart Association:
Switch to a diet rich in “good fats” and low in “bad fats.”
Make sure that fewer than 30 percent of your daily calories come from fat and that fewer than 7 percent come from saturated fat. If you take in 2,000 calories each day, that means you should draw the line at 67 grams of total fat; within that amount, you should limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats. This is the most important guideline because nothing in your food — not even cholesterol — will raise the level of cholesterol in your bloodstream faster than saturated fat will.
Some tips on identifying saturated fat: It is solid at room temperature, and the main dietary sources of it are animal products including beef, pork lard, poultry fat, butter, cream, and whole-milk dairy products. Some plant foods, such as coconut and palm oils, contain saturated fat, too. You can check food labels to see how much fat and saturated fat you’re about to get, but those figures don’t tell the whole story.
Fat comes in different varieties, some much more dangerous than others.
In addition to limiting saturated fat, you should avoid trans-fatty acids, a type of fat often found in stick margarine, fast foods, and mass-produced packaged foods like crackers and cookies. Trans fatty acids can increase the level of harmful cholesterol (LDL) in your blood while lowering the good cholesterol (HDL). (Good cholesterol helps clear other cholesterols from your blood.)
One way to limit your consumption of trans fats: Read the ingredients lists on food labels, and bypass items that contain partially hydrogenated oils. In contrast, monounsaturated fats (found in nuts and in olive, canola, and peanut oils) and polyunsaturated fats (found in safflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils) may actually lower the amount of harmful cholesterol in your blood. Furthermore, omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat found in nuts, flaxseed, and many types of fish, may help prevent the types of blood clots that can cause heart attacks and strokes. A number of studies have found that eating fish or shellfish once a week can cut the risk of dying from a sudden stroke or heart attack by more than 50 percent. The AHA now recommends eating at least two servings a week of fish high in omega-3s — such as salmon, tuna, sardines or lake trout.
Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
Nine servings is even better. Many types of produce are rich in vitamins C, beta-carotene, and other antioxidants that may help prevent the