Heart-Healthy Diet: Eating a Variety of Nutritious Whole Foods Daily

By James M. Rippe

A number of major health and nutrition organizations in the U.S., including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Heart Association (AHA), and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), have developed basic principles for healthy nutrition.

Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables daily — at least five servings

Fruits and vegetables are important for what they do and do not contain. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with fiber, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals that lower the risks of heart disease and cancer. In addition, they are low in sodium, and most have no fat. As a result, fruits and vegetables don’t increase blood pressure or blood cholesterol.

Studies also show that people with high blood pressure who consume a diet containing high levels of fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products significantly reduced their blood pressure. Last, but hardly least, fruits and vegetables are a major source of the complex carbohydrates that are the body’s primary source of fuel.

Extensive research confirms that eating a minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables daily provides significant benefits to heart health and overall health. Eating more is also good, but the baseline you want to reach is five servings.

Select a variety of whole-grain foods daily

Whole-grain foods, such as whole-grain cereals, bread, pasta and brown rice, form a mainstay of heart-healthy eating along with fruits and vegetables, because they are very high in fiber and in complex carbohydrates. In addition to popular whole grains such as oats, wheat, rye, brown rice, and corn, other less familiar whole grains you might try include quinoa, barley, buckwheat, and amaranth.

Not consuming enough fiber clearly is associated with increased risk of heart disease. Everyone should be consuming approximately 25 grams of fiber from natural dietary sources every day, yet the sad truth is that most people eat only about half of this amount.

If you pay attention to popular media, you may get the impression that carbohydrates are the last thing you should eat. Actually, carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Has carbohydrate consumption contributed to the increased incidence of obesity in the U.S. as some claim?

This assertion is misleading. Overconsumption of calories, coupled with inadequate physical activity, has led to the explosion of obesity in the U.S. Unfortunately, many of those extra calories have come from refined simple carbohydrates and added sugars, which essentially are empty calories, or calories that don’t provide the nutritional punch of whole-grain foods and fruits and vegetables. So think and choose whole grains!

Choose lean protein foods

Protein provides the building blocks for the body’s cells. Protein helps repair cells and build new ones and supports development for growing children and teens. Most Americans get enough protein and more.

The goal is to select the most healthful proteins. If you eat animal protein, select lean cuts of meat and trim visible fat or remove poultry skin before or after cooking. Fish and nonfat or low-fat dairy and eggs also provide protein. You can also get adequate protein from plant sources such as dried beans, tofu and other soy foods, nuts and nut butters, seeds, some whole grains, and nondairy milks (such as soy and nut milks).

Enjoy healthy oils and fats in moderation

Just as it needs carbohydrates and protein, your body needs the right fats in the right amounts for good general health and good heart health. There are three types of healthful fats — monounsaturated fats (MUFAS), polyunsaturated fats (PUFAS), and omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Monounsaturated fats (MUFAS) come from vegetable sources, such as olive, canola, and peanut oils, and foods such as nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados. Monounsaturated oils are typically liquid at room temperature.

    Substantial evidence suggests that monounsaturated fats, particularly the ways they are consumed in a Mediterranean diet that features olive oil, can significantly lower your risk of heart disease by helping to improve blood cholesterol (lipid) levels and fighting inflammation. They may also help control blood glucose levels, which helps control type 2 diabetes, a risk factor for heart disease.

  • Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAS) also come primarily from vegetable sources and typically are liquid at room temperature. Corn oil and most other salad oils are examples of polyunsaturated oils. Polyunsaturated fats also help improve blood lipid levels and benefit control of type 2 diabetes.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are found in certain fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, herring, lake trout, and canned light tuna (lower mercury than albacore tuna), as well as such plant foods as walnuts, flax seed, and canola and soybean oils. There is substantial evidence that omega 3s benefit heart health and help reduce heart disease risk.

    The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice weekly (3.5-ounce cooked servings), except for pregnant women and children. Wild caught fish (sustainably fished) appear to have higher levels of mercury than farmed fish. Because of their high mercury content, avoid swordfish, king mackerel, tile fish, and shark.

Although these oils and fats can contribute to good nutrition and heart health, they have a potential downside: Like all fats, they are high calorie. At nine calories per gram, they have more than twice the four calories per gram of carbohydrates and protein. Eating too many foods high in fat contributes to the overconsumption of calories by most Americans.

So what’s the best policy? Substitute healthful fats for saturated fats; don’t simply increase the amount you eat.