How does what I eat affect my heart?
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.
Keeping your heart healthy by making healthier food choices isn't as hard as it sounds!
Tips for a heart-healthy diet
- 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, such as those found in nuts and seeds, and omega-3 fats, such as those found in fish, are also healthy choices. In general, you should try to avoid trans fats. Trans fats are usually found in processed foods and snacks such as crackers and chips. To see whether a food contains trans fats, look for the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient label.
- Whole-grain breads are higher in fiber and complex carbohydrates, so choose these breads instead of white breads for sandwiches and as additions to meals.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Not only do they add flavor and variety to your diet, but they also contain fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- 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.
- 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 versions of milk, yogurt and cheese products. Eat no more than 4 egg yolks a week (use egg whites or egg substitutes).
- Visit our “How to Make Healthier Food Choices” handout for more tips. Try a Mediterranean Diet for one of the healthiest approaches to eating we know about.
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. If you need to lose weight, remember that losing just 10% of your body weight will reduce your risks for diabetes and heart disease.
Why is exercise good for my heart?
Exercise makes your heart stronger, which helps it pump more blood with each heartbeat. This delivers more oxygen to your body, which helps it function more efficiently.
Exercise can also lower blood pressure, reduce your risk of heart disease and reduce levels of LDL ("bad" cholesterol), which can clog the arteries and can cause a heart attack. At the same time, exercise can raise levels of HDL ("good" cholesterol), which 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 also helps you burn calories faster, even when you're sitting still, because exercise builds lean muscle (which burns more calories than fat).
What's the best type of exercise for my heart?
Aerobic exercise causes you to breathe more deeply and makes your heart work harder to pump blood. Aerobic exercise also raises your heart rate (which also burns calories). Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, jogging, running, dancing, swimming and bicycling.
How much exercise do I need?
In general, 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. To prevent injuries, it is best to alternate exercise days with rest days or days you do a very different type of exercise to 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.
Some information adapted from Physicians Guide to Outpatient Nutrition, by Sylvia A. Moore, Ph.D., R.D., F.A.D.A. and John P. Nagle, M.P.A. American Academy of Family Physicians, Leawood, KS. 2001.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff