Heart Disease: Eating a Heart-Healthy Diet

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Heart Disease: Eating a Heart-Healthy Diet

Introduction

Heart disease is a leading killer of both men and women in Canada. If you are worried about heart disease, one of the most important things you can do is to start eating a heart-healthy diet. Changing your diet can help stop or even reverse heart disease.

At first, it may seem like there is a lot to learn. But you don't have to make these changes all at once. Start with small steps. Over time, making a number of small changes can add up to a big difference in your heart health.

To have a heart-healthy diet:

  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other high-fibre foods.
  • Choose foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
  • Limit salt (sodium).
  • Stay at a healthy weight by balancing the calories you eat with your physical activity.
  • Eat more foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish.
  • Limit drinks and foods with added sugar.
 

A heart-healthy diet focuses on adding more healthy foods to your diet and cutting back on foods that are not so good for you.

This advice matches the heart-healthy diet recommended by the American Heart Association.

Healthy foods are ones that are high in vitamins, minerals, fibre, and other nutrients, such as:

  • Fruits and vegetables.
  • Beans (including chickpeas and lentils) and whole grains (such as whole wheat, brown rice, oats, rye, bulgur, barley, quinoa, and corn).
  • Oily fish like salmon, trout, albacore tuna, herring, mackerel, and sardines, which contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. You can also get omega-3 fats from omega-3 eggs, walnuts, flax seeds, and canola oil.

Foods to limit are ones that are high in:

  • Unhealthy fats, such as saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol.
    • Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products, such as meats and dairy products.
    • Trans fats include shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fats are made when a liquid fat is turned into a solid fat (for example, when corn oil is made into stick margarine). They are found in many processed foods, such as cookies, crackers, and snack foods. Restaurants often use hydrogenated oils for frying foods, so try to limit fried foods when eating out.
    • Cholesterol is found in animal products, such as eggs, dairy products, and meats.
  • Salt (sodium). You need some sodium in your diet, but most people get far more than they need. Too much sodium tends to raise blood pressure. Processed foods and fast foods often contain a lot of sodium. Try to limit these foods and eat more fresh foods.
  • Added sugars in food and drinks.

Eating foods that contain unhealthy fats can raise the LDL ("bad") cholesterol in your blood. Having a high level of LDL cholesterol increases your chance of having clogged arteries (atherosclerosis), which can lead to coronary artery disease and heart attack.

Trans fat is especially unhealthy. It both raises the level of "bad” cholesterol and lowers the "good" cholesterol in the blood. Try to avoid trans fat as much as possible.

Test Your Knowledge

If I see "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" on a food label, I should avoid that food because it contains trans fat.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, hydrogenated vegetable oils, and some margarines contain unhealthy trans fats. Read food labels and try to avoid foods with trans fats and shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, or hydrogenated vegetable oils in the ingredient list. It's a good idea to choose only foods that have 0 grams of trans fat.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, hydrogenated vegetable oils, and some margarines contain unhealthy trans fats. Read food labels and try to avoid foods with trans fats and shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, or hydrogenated vegetable oils in the ingredient list. It's a good idea to choose only foods that have 0 grams of trans fat.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

Making good food choices can have a big impact on your health. Eating a heart-healthy diet can help you to:

  • Lower your blood pressure.
  • Lower your cholesterol.
  • Reach and stay at a healthy weight.
  • Control or prevent diabetes.
  • Improve your overall health.

A heart-healthy diet is not just for people with existing health problems. It is good for all healthy adults and children older than age 2. Learning heart-healthy eating habits now can help prevent heart disease in years to come.

Test Your Knowledge

I need to follow a heart-healthy diet, but my spouse and kids don't.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    A heart-healthy diet is good for anyone. If your spouse and children don't have heart disease, learning heart-healthy eating habits now can help prevent heart disease in years to come. Changing the way your family eats could be one of the best things you ever do for them.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    A heart-healthy diet is good for anyone. If your spouse and children don't have heart disease, learning heart-healthy eating habits now can help prevent heart disease in years to come. Changing the way your family eats could be one of the best things you ever do for them.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

To have a heart-healthy diet:

  • Eat fruits and vegetables. Eat a variety of fruit and vegetable servings every day. Dark green, deep orange, or yellow fruits and vegetables are especially nutritious. Examples include spinach, carrots, peaches, and berries.
  • Eat a variety of grain products every day. Include whole-grain foods that have lots of fibre and nutrients. Examples of whole grains include oats, whole wheat bread, and brown rice.
  • Eat fish at least 2 times each week. Oily fish, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, are best for your heart. These fish include tuna, salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring, and sardines.
  • Limit saturated fat and cholesterol. To limit saturated fat and cholesterol, try to choose the following foods:
    • Lean meats and meat alternatives like beans or tofu
    • Fish, vegetables, beans, and nuts
    • Non-fat and low-fat dairy products
    • Polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, like canola and olive oils, to replace saturated fats, such as butter
  • Read food labels and limit the amount of trans fat you eat. Trans fat raises the levels of LDL ("bad”) cholesterol and also lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or "good") cholesterol in the blood. Trans fat is found in many processed foods made with shortening or with partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated vegetable oils. These foods include cookies, crackers, chips, and many snack foods.
  • Choose healthy fats. Unsaturated fats, such as olive, canola, corn, and sunflower oils, are part of a healthy diet. But all fats are high in calories, so watch your serving sizes.
  • Limit salt (sodium). Limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (about one teaspoon). Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt. Watch for hidden sodium in foods.
  • Eat only as many calories as you need to stay at a healthy weight. Learn how much is a serving, and then check your portion sizes. Limit drinks with added sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. If you want to lose weight, increase your activity level to burn more calories than you eat.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation. Limit how much alcohol you drink. See a picture of a standard drink.
  • Limit added sugar. Limit drinks and foods with added sugar.
  • When you are eating away from home, try to follow these heart-healthy diet tips.

You can get even more benefit from making diet changes if you also get plenty of exercise and don't smoke.

But you don't have to be perfect, and you don't have to do it all at once. Make one or two changes at a time. As soon as you are used to those, make another one or two changes. Over time, making a number of small changes can add up and make a big difference in your health.

Here are some ideas about how to get started:

  • Choose whole-grain bread instead of white bread.
  • Have a piece of fruit instead of a candy bar.
  • Try to eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Add one or two servings of fruits and vegetables to your day. Slowly add more servings until you are eating at least 5 servings a day.
  • Switch from 2% or whole milk to 1% or non-fat milk.
  • Instead of meat, have fish for dinner. Brush it with olive oil, and broil or grill it.
  • Switch from butter to a cholesterol-lowering soft spread. Use olive or canola oil for cooking.
  • Use herbs and spices, instead of salt, to add flavour to foods.
  • Modify your favourite recipes so they have less fat and calories but still taste good.

It may take some time to get used to new tastes and habits, but don't give up. Keep in mind the good things you are doing for your heart and your overall health.

Test Your Knowledge

All fats are bad for me.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    Not all fats are bad for you. Fat is an important nutrient. The problem comes when you eat too much fat or the wrong kind of fats. Saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol are unhealthy types of fat. Unsaturated fats like canola and olive oils are good for you if you use them in moderation.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    Not all fats are bad for you. Fat is an important source of energy for the body. The problem comes when you eat too much fat or the wrong kind of fats. Saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol are unhealthy types of fat. Unsaturated fats like canola and olive oils are good for you if you use them in moderation.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you have read this information, you are ready to eat a more heart-healthy diet.

Talk with your doctor

If you have questions about this information, take it with you when you visit your doctor or dietitian. You may want to mark areas or make notes in the margins where you have questions.

If you would like more information on eating a heart-healthy diet, the following resources are available:

Organizations

Canada's Food Guide
Health Canada, Health Products and Food Branch, Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion
Web Address: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/index_e.html
 

Canada's Food Guide provides resources to help guide food selection and promote the nutritional health of Canadians. Resources include outlines of the food groups, the recommended range of daily servings, background information about the food guide, and other information about healthy eating.


Dietitians of Canada
480 University Avenue
Suite 604
Toronto, ON  M5G 1V2
Phone: (416) 596-0857
Fax: (416) 596-0603
Email: centralinfo@dietitians.ca
Web Address: www.dietitians.ca
 

The Dietitians of Canada website provides a wide range of food and nutrition information, including fact sheets on frequently asked food and diet questions, quizzes and other tools to assess your diet habits, and meal planning guides.


Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
222 Queen Street
Suite 1402
Ottawa, ON  K1P 5V9
Phone: (613) 569-4361
Fax: (613) 569-3278
Web Address: www.heartandstroke.ca
 

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada works to improve the health of Canadians by preventing and reducing disability and death from heart disease and stroke through research, health promotion, and advocacy.


U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD  20824-0105
Phone: (301) 592-8573
Fax: (240) 629-3246
TDD: (240) 629-3255
Email: nhlbiinfo@nhlbi.nih.gov
Web Address: www.nhlbi.nih.gov
 

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing and treating:

  • Diseases affecting the heart and circulation, such as heart attacks, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease, and heart problems present at birth (congenital heart diseases).
  • Diseases that affect the lungs, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, sleep apnea, and pneumonia.
  • Diseases that affect the blood, such as anemia, hemochromatosis, hemophilia, thalassemia, and von Willebrand disease.

For more information on other heart-healthy diets and exercising for a healthy heart, see:

Click here to view an Actionset.Heart Disease: Exercising for a Healthy Heart.
Click here to view an Actionset.Walking for a Healthy Heart.
Comparing Heart-Healthy Diets (What is a PDF document?).
Click here to view an Actionset.High Blood Pressure: Using the DASH Diet.
Mediterranean Diet.

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Related Information

References

Other Works Consulted

  • American Heart Association (2006). Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006. Circulation, 114(1): 82–96. [Erratum in Circulation, 114(1): e27.]
  • Gidding SS, et al. (2005). Dietary recommendations for children and adolescents: A guide for practitioners. Consensus statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 112: 2061–2075.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Rhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Last Revised August 23, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.