Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S., regardless of race or ethnicity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although you cannot change some risk factors, such as family history, sex or age, you can take some key steps to reduce your risk of heart disease. You can avoid heart problems in the future by adopting a healthy lifestyle today, including being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, getting good quality sleep, managing stress and avoiding exposure to tobacco.
Another key component is eating a heart-healthy diet. A diet that's high in fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol can lead to heart disease. A healthy diet can protect the heart, improve blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Eating habits can be hard to change, though. These eight strategies can help you get started:
Eat more vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruits are good sources of vitamins and minerals. They also are low in calories, rich in dietary fiber and contain substances that may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Eating more fruits and vegetables may help you cut back on higher-calorie foods, such as meats, cheeses and snack foods, as well.
Select whole grains. Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that play a role in regulating blood pressure and heart health. You can increase the amount of whole grains in a heart-healthy diet by making simple substitutions for refined grain products. Or be adventuresome and try something new, such as whole-grain farro, quinoa or barley.
Choose healthy fats. Limiting how much saturated and transfats you eat is an important step to reduce your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of coronary artery disease. Instead, choose monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil or canola oil. Polyunsaturated fats, which are found in certain fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, also are good choices for a heart-healthy diet. When used in place of saturated fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may lower your total blood cholesterol. But moderation is essential. All types of fat are high in calories.
Choose low-fat proteins. Lean meat, poultry and fish; low-fat dairy products; and eggs are some of your best sources of protein. Choose lower-fat options, such as skinless chicken breasts rather than fried chicken patties, and skim milk rather than whole milk. Legumes, such as beans, peas and lentils, also are good, low-fat sources of protein. And they contain no cholesterol, making them good substitutes for meat.
Reduce the salt in your food. Eating too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. Limiting salt is an important part of a heart-healthy diet. Canned or processed foods, such as soups, baked goods and frozen dinners, can be high in salt. Eating fresh foods and making your own soups and stews can reduce the amount of salt you eat. Another way to reduce the amount of salt you eat is to choose your condiments carefully.
Control your portion size. How much you eat is as important as what you eat. Overloading your plate, taking second helpings and eating until you feel stuffed can lead to eating more calories than you should. Portions served in restaurants often are more than anyone needs.
Plan ahead by creating daily menus. Create daily menus using the six strategies listed above. When selecting foods for each meal and snack, emphasize vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Choose lean protein sources and healthy fats, and limit salty foods. Watch your portion sizes and add variety to your menu choices.
Allow yourself an occasional treat. Allow yourself an indulgence every now and then. A candy bar or handful of potato chips won't derail your heart-healthy diet. But don't let it turn into an excuse for giving up on your healthy eating plan. If overindulgence is the exception rather than the rule, you'll balance things out over the long term. What's important is that you eat healthy foods most of the time.