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
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:
fish, and nuts
amounts of red meat and sugary foods and beverages
Base your eating pattern decisions on these guidelines and
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
- cakes, cookies,
- 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
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.