Diet and Heart Health Basics
Discover the key to a heart-healthy diet and the link between heart disease and alcohol, calcium, sugar, and caffeine. Foods to avoid and foods...

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Your doctor may have recently advised you that you’re at risk for heart disease due to lifestyle or family history. Or, 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. However, there’s a simple way to reduce your chance of becoming a heart disease statistic: 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 this stage in your life means you won’t enjoy food anymore. Fortunately, this is not 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. AHA recommends taking the following dietary measures to benefit your long-term heart health:

Eat at least:

  • 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables each day
  • two 3.5-ounce servings of fish each week
  • three one-ounce servings of fiber-rich whole grains a day
  • four servings of nuts, legumes, and seeds a week
  • two servings per week of processed meats
  • 2,500 milligrams per day of sodium
  • 36 ounces per week of sugar-sweetened beverages
  • seven percent of your total energy intake from saturated fat

Eat no more than:

Beyond these general guidelines, several areas are important to understand when it comes to nutrition and your heart. Alcohol, calcium, sugar, and caffeine can affect your risk for developing heart disease—some for better, some for worse, and some unknown.

Alcohol and Heart Disease

The AHA’s recommendation on alcohol is that if you drink, do it moderately. For men, this means no more than two drinks per day. Women should consume 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. However, many observational studies have demonstrated a reduction in cardiovascular disease with moderate alcohol consumption.

Despite this potential benefit, the AHA doesn’t recommend drinking alcohol to reduce cardiovascular risk. Instead, 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, high blood pressure, 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.

A study in the May 2010 issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reported that calcium supplements were associated with an increased risk of heart attack. However, a Harvard Medical School article notes that while some prior studies have shown a link between taking calcium supplements and heart disease, others haven’t.

The article by P.J. Skerrett, senior editor of Harvard Health, notes that although the BMJ article described a 30 percent increased risk of heart disease from calcium supplements, another way to report the findings makes the difference seem less dramatic. That is, 5.8 percent of those taking calcium had a cardiovascular event, compared to 5.5 percent of those taking a placebo.

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 (also called the DASH diet) helps to significantly lower blood pressure.

The AHA emphasizes the importance for women in particular to eat fat-free and low-fat dairy products—such as milk and yogurt—for their calcium benefitsMost 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. A scientific statement published by the AHA in the journal Circulation notes that the rise in obesity and cardiovascular disease has increased concern about the high intake of sugar in the typical American diet. The statement concludes that to decrease cardiovascular risk while maintaining a healthy weight and meeting nutritional needs, you should follow these guidelines:

  • Women: eat/drink no more than 100 calories per day from added sugars.
  • Men: 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, chocolate, and kola nuts. It hasn’t been determined yet if high caffeine intake increases risk for coronary heart disease.

Numerous studies have attempted to discover whether there’s a link between caffeine—in particular, that found in coffee—and cardiovascular disease. The AHA reports that the research results have been conflicting, though the association states that moderate coffee drinking (defined as one to two cups per day) “doesn’t seem to be harmful.”

The Mayo Clinic notes that while recent studies have generally 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. It’s also been found that two or more daily cups of coffee can increase the risk of heart disease in people with a common genetic mutation that slows the body’s breakdown of caffeine.

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. 

Written by: Robin Madell
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: George Krucik, MD
Published: Apr 10, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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