Diet and Exercise for a Healthy Heart

Certain foods can lower your risk of heart disease or help to manage it, while other foods may increase your risk. Try these tips for preparing heart-healthy meals.

Your heart is the center of your cardiovascular system. It is involved in many of the daily functions that bring your body to life. So having a healthy heart is vital to your overall health. Two of the simplest yet most important ways to help your heart health are through diet and exercise.

What is a heart-healthy diet?

Heart disease is the leading killer of men and women—and claims more lives than all forms of cancer combined. Being diagnosed with cardiovascular disease can also take an emotional toll, affecting your mood, outlook, and quality of life. While weight control and regular exercise are critical for keeping your heart in shape, the food you eat can matter just as much. In fact, along with other healthy lifestyle choices, a heart-healthy diet may reduce your risk of heart disease or stroke by 80%.

No single food can make you magically healthy, so your overall dietary pattern is more important than specific foods. Instead of fried, processed food, packaged meals, and sugary snacks, a heart-healthy diet is built around “real,” natural food—fresh from the ground, ocean, or farm.

Whether you’re looking to improve your cardiovascular health, have already been diagnosed with heart disease, or have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, these heart-healthy diet tips can help you better manage these conditions and lower your risk of a heart attack.

Path to improved health

Improving your heart health is not difficult when you know how to eat and how to exercise. Follow these tips to get the most out of your diet and exercise plan.

Diet

The foods you eat can affect your weight, your hormones, and the health of your organs, including your heart. Eating a healthy diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Choose healthy fats.

Despite what you may have heard, some fats are actually good for you. When you use fats for cooking, choose monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil or canola oil. Avocados are also a good source of monounsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids are also healthy choices. Polyunsaturated fats are found in nuts and seeds. Omega-3 fats are found in fish, such as tuna and salmon. In general, you should try to avoid trans fats. Trans fats are usually found in processed foods and snacks such as crackers or snack cakes. To see whether a food contains trans fats, look for the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient label.

Go whole-grain.

Whole-grain breads or pastas are higher in fiber and complex carbohydrates. Choose them instead of white breads or regular pastas for sandwiches and meals.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

They contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are good for your body. They also add flavor and variety to your diet.

Prepare meat healthfully.

Baking, broiling, and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare meat and poultry. Trim any outside fat or skin before cooking. Lean cuts can be pan-broiled or stir-fried.

Don’t forget beans.

Dry beans, peas, and lentils offer protein and fiber. Once in a while, try substituting beans for meat in a favorite recipe, such as lasagna or chili.

Choose low-fat dairy.

Go for fat-free or low-fat versions of milk, yogurt, and cheese products.

Pack in protein.

Eat protein–rich foods, including fish, lean meats, skinless poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds, and beans.

Try a diet.

The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan is a heart-healthy approach that lowers blood pressure and bad cholesterol in your blood. Or try the Mediterranean Diet for another healthy approach to eating.

What should I NOT eat?

A heart-healthy diet limits some nutrients. These include:

Sodium. Flavor foods with spices or no-salt seasonings instead of salt. Watch out for prepackaged foods, sauces, canned foods, and processed foods. They can all contain a high amount of sodium.

Saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are found in fatty meats, poultry skin, whole-milk dairy, butter, lard, and coconut and palm oils. Trans fats are found in some desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, stick margarines, and coffee creamers. Look for the words partially hydrogenated oil on the food label.

Added sugar. Sweetened drinks, snacks, and sweet treats are the main source of added sugars in the United States. These include sodas, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, cakes, pies, ice cream, candy, syrups, and jellies. Limit these types of foods and drinks.

Alcohol. Limit your intake of alcohol. Men should have no more than 2 drinks a day. Women should have no more than 1 drink per day. Too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and cause you to gain weight. It can also contribute to or worsen heart failure in some people.

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How much should I weigh?

Talk to your family doctor about your ideal weight, because every person is different. If you’re overweight, the extra pounds put extra stress on your heart. Losing weight can help your heart stay healthy. Remember that losing just 10% of your body weight will reduce your risks for diabetes and heart disease.

Exercise

Exercise makes your heart stronger. This helps it pump more blood with each heartbeat. This delivers more oxygen to your body. With more oxygen, your body functions more efficiently. Exercise can also lower blood pressure. It reduces your risk of heart disease and reduces levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol). Bad cholesterol can clog the arteries and can cause a heart attack. At the same time, exercise can raise levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol). HDL helps protect against a heart attack by carrying fatty deposits out of the arteries. When combined with a healthy diet, exercise can speed up weight loss. Regular exercise builds lean muscle, which burns more calories than fat. This helps you burn calories faster, even when you’re sitting still.

What’s the best type of exercise for my heart? Aerobic exercise causes you to breathe more deeply. It makes your heart work harder to pump blood. Aerobic exercise also raises your heart rate (which burns calories). Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, jogging, running, dancing, swimming, and bicycling.

How much exercise do I need? If you haven’t been exercising, try to work up to 30 minutes 4 to 6 times a week. Your doctor may recommend a different exercise regimen based on your health. Alternate exercise days with rest days or days you do a very different type of exercise. This will help prevent injuries.

How will I fit exercise into my busy schedule? There are lots of ways to raise your heart rate during your regular day. Some examples include:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Walk during a coffee break or lunch.
  • Walk to work, or park at the end of the parking lot so you have to walk farther.
  • Walk more briskly.
  • Do housework at a quicker pace and more often (for example, vacuuming every day).
  • Rake leaves, mow your lawn, or do other yard work.

Things to consider

Diet and exercise are an important part of your heart health. If you don’t eat a good diet and you don’t exercise, you are at increased risk of developing health problems. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. These increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

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