Healthy eating is key to a healthy heart — but it’s not always easy. The good news is that healthy ingestion isn’t all or nothing. You don’t need to follow a fad diet or change your whole eating routine overnight. You can start with small changes that work for you to experience benefits like boosting your immunity, strengthening your bones, and helping your digestive system function. And remember it’s never too late to take a step toward better heart health.
How can I start eating healthy for my heart?
All the nutrition advice you see online can be overwhelming. To cut through the noise, it can help to focus on 4 key things for heart health: sodium (salt), sugar, fat, and fiber.
Cut back on sodium (salt)
When you eat too much sodium (salt), your body pulls more water into your bloodstream and this could cause your blood pressure to go up. And high blood pressure raises your risk for heart attack and stroke — so cutting back on sodium (salt) is a big win for your heart.
You don’t need to ditch sodium (salt) entirely — just try these tips to get less:
- Watch out for sneaky sodium (salt)! Salt hides in things that don’t taste very salty, like canned vegetables, sauces, condiments, and tortillas. Look for labels that say “low sodium,” “reduced salt,” or “no salt added.”
- Get creative with spices and herbs. When you cook, skip the salt and flavor your food with a salt-free all-purpose seasoning or your favorite spice. Or try swapping half the salt in a recipe for another herb or spice.
- Choose lower sodium proteins. Instead of deli meats, sausages, and other processed meats (think: marinated, smoked, canned, or cured), packed with sodium (salt) reach for fresh or frozen poultry such as chicken, fish, eggs or beans and lentils — and spice it up with whatever extra flavor you want!
How’s this for a salty shocker? The #1 source of sodium (salt) is… bread.
It’s true! The top source of sodium for Americans is bread and rolls — and all those slices for toast and sandwiches can really add up. That’s why it’s so important to check labels and choose breads and other products with less sodium.
Choose healthy fats
Fats aren’t all bad. In fact, you need fat to stay healthy. It’s all about choosing the right kind. Saturated fat raises your “bad” cholesterol (LDL) — and switching to unsaturated fats can lower it.
So to protect your heart, replace saturated fat with unsaturated fats:
- Saturated fat is in foods like fatty meats, full-fat dairy, palm oil, and coconut oil
- Unsaturated fats are in foods like avocados, fish, nuts, olive oil, and canola oil
Start by making some heart-healthy swaps:
|Instead of…||Go for…|
|Butter, shortening, or stick margarine||Olive oil, canola oil, or soft tub margarine|
|Full-fat milk, cheese, or yogurt||Low-fat milk, cheese, or yogurt|
|Ribs, sausage, or other fatty cuts of meat||Fish, lean meat, or skinless chicken or turkey|
You heart what you eat
Food isn’t just about nutrition — it’s also about enjoyment, comfort, culture, and family. So don’t feel like you need to give up all the foods you love.
Just aim for balance and try to eat healthier most of the time. And when you cook, try tweaking favorite recipes to use a bit less salt, sugar, and saturated fat.
Skip the sugar
Added sugars are sweeteners that companies add to foods and drinks, or that you add at home. (And that includes honey, maple syrup, and other so-called “natural” sweeteners.) These things add a lot of calories — that can contribute to weight gain, which can increase your risk for developing type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Follow these tips to skip the added sugars:
- Choose water instead of sugary drinks. Most added sugars come from sweet drinks, like soda, iced tea, or blended coffee drinks. Reach for water instead! If you don’t like plain water, try seltzer with a squeeze of lemon or lime.
- Watch out for sneaky sugars! Companies often add sweeteners to foods that seem healthy, like yogurt and granola — and to foods that don’t taste very sweet, like bread and pasta sauce. Look for labels that say “no added sugars” or that have a % Daily Value (%DV) of 5% or less for added sugars.
- For a healthy sugar fix, choose whole fruits. Fruits taste sweet, but they don’t have added sugars. Try having fruit for dessert instead of cookies or ice cream. You can also use fruits like bananas or berries to sweeten oatmeal, yogurt, and baked goods.
Would you sit down and eat 10 teaspoons of sugar with your lunch?
Think not? Well, there’s about that much in a single can of soda. Sugary drinks are by far the top source of added sugars — so skipping the soda is a great way to cut back.
Eat more fiber
Enough about what you need to limit. Let’s talk about what to eat more of: fiber. Fiber has tons of benefits — it makes you feel full longer and helps control both blood sugar and cholesterol. That’s a win-win-win! To get more fiber, try eating more:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains, like brown rice or 100% whole wheat bread
- Beans, like chickpeas, black beans, or lentils
Here’s 1 sure way to boost fiber: fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. And to save time and money, buy frozen or canned — just make sure they’re low in sodium.
Don’t feel like eating fruits and vegetables? Try a smoothie!
Smoothies are a great way to get more healthy fiber, and they’re easy to drink on the go. Throw some fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables in a blender. Spinach, bananas, berries, and mangoes all work great. Just go easy on the added sugars — try using whole fruits as the only sweetener.
Cooking puts you in control
Most packaged foods and restaurant meals have tons of sodium, added sugar, and saturated fat. That’s why cooking at home with ingredients you choose makes such a huge difference! Remember, it’s your heart health, your way.
And you don’t need to become a master chef overnight. Start with just 1 home-cooked meal this week and work up to more. Try these tips:
- Short on time? Prep once, eat twice. Cook in big batches and eat leftovers the next day or freeze them for later. Try chopping a bunch of vegetables to cook with or snack on all week long (or use frozen or canned to save money and prep time).
- Dreading the dishes? Cooking doesn’t have to destroy your kitchen. Search online for “one pot” or “sheet pan” dinner recipes that are quick to prep and leave you with a much easier cleanup afterwards.
- Grocery bill too high? Cooking can be cheaper than eating out, but it depends on what you buy. To save on food costs, try making simple staples like a pot of rice and beans with a vegetable that’s in season or on sale. Instead of pricier meats, try cooking with low-cost protein options like eggs, lentils, or canned fish.
- Not feeling motivated to cook? Make it a fun family or social activity. Find a simple recipe to make with your kids. Or invite friends over to try making a new dish together. After all, sharing meals with loved ones is good for the heart (and soul).
Get ready to make healthy choices with these grocery shopping tips:
- Shop your meals for the week. A little planning can go a long way toward helping you make healthy choices. So plan your meals for the week when you can, and do the shopping all at once. Because we all know what happens when we grab food on the go or rush to make a meal without a plan — yep, it’s way harder to reach for healthy choices.
- Make a list and mostly stick to it. It’s not rocket science, but having a list really helps keep you focused on what you came for. Also, organizing your list based on the order you’ll find the items in the store can get you out of there faster (bonus!).
- Check what you already have before you shop. Take a quick look before you leave for the store so you don’t wind up buying things you don’t need — especially unhealthy things you don’t need!
Make food labels work for you
Ignore empty advertising words like “natural” on packaged foods. Skip right to the good stuff: the Nutrition Facts label. Compare different brands to find options with:
- Less sodium
- Less saturated fat
- Less added sugar
- More fiber
Eating healthy when eating out
You can make healthier choices no matter where you’re eating. When you order takeout or go out to eat, try these tips:
- Drink water, sparkling water, or unsweetened tea instead of soda.
- Make sure to get a fruit and vegetable on your plate — and aim for different colors.
- Look for items that are grilled or baked, instead of fried. And try to avoid rich sauces.
- Split a more filling entrée or dessert with a friend — or take half home as leftovers.
- At fast food chains, skip the super sizing. Ask for extra lettuce, tomato, or other vegetable toppings.
Track your healthy eating progress
Keeping a record of healthy changes can help motivate you to keep going. Each time you cook a healthy meal or add a fruit or vegetable to your plate, try jotting it down in a notebook or on your phone. You’ll be surprised how fast these small choices add up to a healthier eating routine.
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