Diet and Heart Health Basics

Written by Robin Madell | Published on August 13, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on August 13, 2014

Diet and Heart Health Basics

Your doctor may have recently advised you that you’re at risk for heart disease due to lifestyle or family history. Perhaps you’ve experienced a more forceful wake-up call — a major cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), more Americans die of heart disease than any other condition. There’s a simple way to reduce your chance of becoming a heart disease statistic. You can eat a healthy diet.

Eating habits develop over the years and can be difficult to change. You may worry that starting to eat right at now means you won’t enjoy food anymore. This isn’t the case. Even small changes can make a big difference in your quality of life.

Once you know which foods are best for your heart, it will become simpler than you thought. What does it mean to eat a heart-healthy diet? A heart-healthy diet includes a wide variety of nutritious foods, some of which you may already enjoy. The AHA recommends taking the following dietary measures to benefit your long-term heart health.

For a healthy diet, be sure to include:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • whole grains
  • low-fat dairy products
  • poultry, fish, and nuts
  • limited amounts of red meat and sugary foods and beverages

Base your eating pattern decisions on these guidelines and recommendations.

  • Choose lean means without skin and prepare them without added saturated and trans fat.  
  • Eat fish at least twice a week. Oily fish with omega-3 fatty acids help lower your risk of heart disease.
  • Select 1 percent fat and low-fat dairy products.
  • Cut back on beverages and foods with added sugars.
  • Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation.
  • Follow the American Heart Association recommendations when you eat out, and keep an eye on your portion sizes.

Beyond these general guidelines, several areas are important to understand when it comes to nutrition and your heart.

Alcohol and Heart Disease

The AHA recommendation on alcohol is to drink in moderation, if you do drink. For men, this means no more than two drinks per day. Moderate intake for women means no more than one drink per day. One drink equals one 12-ounce beer, four ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.

The AHA emphasizes that the relationship between alcohol and heart disease is complex. There’s a proven association between heavy alcohol consumption and health risks, including alcoholism, obesity, and breast cancer. Some studies have suggested a reduction in cardiovascular disease with moderate alcohol consumption.

Despite this potential benefit, the AHA doesn’t recommend drinking alcohol to reduce cardiovascular risk. Use more conventional measures such as controlling your weight, exercising regularly, and lowering your cholesterol and blood pressure to reduce your risk. It’s important to remember that alcohol consumption can lead to higher calorie intake and heart failure. Your doctor can help you assess your personal risks and benefits related to drinking alcohol.

Calcium and Heart Disease

As with alcohol, the link between calcium and cardiovascular disease is unclear. The AHA emphasizes that there isn’t enough information to determine if calcium intake affects heart disease risk.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding calcium and heart disease, one thing is clear. Eating fat-free and low-fat dairy products, along with eight or more fruits and vegetables per day, helps to significantly lower blood pressure.

The AHA emphasizes the importance for women in particular to eat fat-free and low-fat dairy products. Most women should aim to consume between 1,000 and 2,000 milligrams of calcium daily. The Mayo Clinic notes that some men may benefit from calcium supplements as well. Men over age 50 should consume in the range of 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams per day and 1,000 to 2,500 milligrams per day for men under 50.

Sugar and Heart Disease

Sugar may taste good, but its effect on your heart health isn’t so sweet. The AHA notes that the rise in obesity and cardiovascular disease has increased concern about the high intake of sugar in the typical American diet. Their statement concludes that, in order to decrease cardiovascular risk while maintaining a healthy weight and meeting nutritional needs, you should follow these guidelines:

  • Women should eat/drink no more than 100 calories per day from added sugars.
  • Men should eat/drink no more than 150 calories per day from added sugars.

For women, that amounts to a maximum of six teaspoons of sugar and for men, about nine teaspoons. Major sources of added sugars include:

  • soft drinks
  • candy
  • cakes, cookies, pie
  • fruit drinks
  • dairy desserts like ice cream
  • sweetened grains such as waffles

Caffeine and Heart Disease

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. It’s found in many foods and beverages, including coffee, tea, soft drinks, and chocolate. It hasn’t been determined yet if high caffeine intake increases risk for coronary heart disease.

The Mayo Clinic notes that while studies have found no definitive connection between drinking coffee and an increased risk for heart disease, the research does suggest possible risks. Studies show that high consumption of unfiltered coffee is associated with minor increases in cholesterol levels.

Although the jury is still out in several of these areas, some things are clear. Eating a healthy, low-fat diet that includes fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains can improve your heart health both now and in the future.

Take the time and make the effort to change your eating habits. Your heart and your loved ones will thank you.

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Show Sources

  • Bolland, M.J., Avenell, A., & Baron, J.A., et al. (2010). Effect of calcium supplements on risk of myocardial infarction and cardiovascular events: meta-analysis. British Medical Journal, 341, c3691. http://www.bmj.com/content/341/bmj.c3691.abstract

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