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.
Path to improved health
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! Just follow these 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 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. Eat no more than 4 egg yolks a week (use egg whites or egg substitutes).
- Pack in protein. Eat protein–rich foods, including fish, lean meats, skinless poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds, and beans.
- Try a diet. The DASH eating plan is a heart-healthy approach that lowers blood pressure and bad cholesterol in your blood. Or try the Mediterranean Dietfor one of the healthiest approaches to eating we know about.
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. Tans 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.
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 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.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Should I eat a special diet to keep my heart healthy?
- What types of foods should I eat?
- I am overweight. How can I lose weight to make my heart healthier?
- How does exercise help my heart?
- How much should I exercise?
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.
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.