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What Makes a Heart Healthy Diet Actually Healthier for Your Heart?

Sep. 22, 2021 - Katie McCallum

We all know that we need to care about our health, but sometimes knowing how to care about it is the hardest part.

Take, for instance, your heart. It does a lot for you, and you know it's important to keep it strong and healthy. You might also know your diet is a big part of that.

But if you knew how certain foods affect your heart health, you might be more inclined to listen the next time your doctor mentions you should cut back on the burgers and fries.

"Yes, keeping a healthy heart means eating a balanced diet full of nutritious foods. But, it also means avoiding the foods that negatively impact your heart, too — and this is where understanding what a heart healthy diet actually is becomes important," says Dr. Danielle Tientcheu, cardiologist at Houston Methodist.

Why are some foods considered bad for your heart?

The easiest way to understand why it's important to eat a heart healthy diet is to consider the consequences of not eating one.

"Eaten frequently, certain foods can be bad for your health because, in addition to leading to weight gain, they negatively impact your blood sugar, blood pressure and increase your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke," explains Dr. Tientcheu. "These are foods that contain high amounts of refined flour, sugar, salt/sodium and saturated fats — one or more of which can almost always be found in packaged food items or fast food."

A diet full of these unhealthy foods can lead to:

  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Fatty plaque building up in your arteries (atherosclerosis)

"For instance, when your blood pressure is consistently high, it causes damage to your blood vessels. As this damage progresses, it can limit how well blood flows through your blood vessels and, ultimately, puts you at risk for heart attack and stroke," explains Dr. Tientcheu. "It can also cause your heart to have to work harder, which can put you at risk for congestive heart failure."

Heart healthy foods, on the other hand, actually promote good heart health and reduce your risk of developing heart disease.

What's in a heart-healthy diet plan?

According to Dr. Tientcheu, heart healthy foods are the whole foods that almost always contain just one single ingredient.

A heart healthy diet includes:

  • Nonstarchy vegetables (broccoli, cucumber, lettuce, green beans)
  • Fruits
  • Whole grains (oats, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, barley)
  • Lean meats (skinless poultry and limited quantities of lean cuts of red meat)
  • Seafood (salmon, tuna, sardines, etc)
  • Non-animal proteins (beans, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Nuts and seeds (flaxseed, chia, sunflower, walnut, almonds, cashews) in an appropriate portion size because they are energy-dense
  • Low-fat dairy

By contrast, a diet that's unhealthy for your heart is one that includes a lot of:

  • Baked goods (cookies, muffins, cakes and other desserts)
  • Red and processed meats (beef, lamb, pork, bacon, sausage, hot dogs)
  • Processed foods
  • Most fast food
  • Sugar-sweetened foods and beverages

"Since these foods are less healthy for your heart, they should make up a very limited part of your diet — considered the exception rather than the routine," adds Dr. Tientcheu.

Is there such a thing as heart healthy fast food?

When you look at the lineup of heart healthy foods, you might wonder if any fast food is safe.

Fortunately, there are still some healthy options that can be just as convenient as the burgers, fries, tacos and chicken tenders you find in a drive-thru.

"It takes some research and planning, but you can certainly find counter-service restaurants that offer healthy food options," Dr. Tientcheu adds. "For instance, a grain bowl full of quinoa, chickpeas, hummus, cucumbers and tomatoes — all fresh, whole, single ingredients — could certainly be a heart healthy choice."

Just be sure to check the portion size so you know you're eating the right number of calories for you. And, if there's dressing, you may choose to ask for it on the side.

Is the keto diet heart healthy?

Another important step in preventing heart disease is maintaining a healthy weight. And while many people are looking to the trendy keto diet for help with weight loss, it may not be the best choice for your heart.

"The keto diet tends to be very heavy on animal protein (not all of which is lean) and saturated fat. Long-term, consuming large amounts of red meat (which includes beef, lamb and pork), processed meats and unhealthy fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease," warns Dr. Tientcheu. "In addition, the keto diet is overly restrictive — making it very hard to maintain in the long run."

Plus, since it's so restrictive, it also means that your diet isn't as balanced as it probably should be. In fact, it may make it harder to get fiber, a type of carbohydrate that cannot be broken down by your digestive tract and is very important for cholesterol maintenance, blood sugar regulation and gut health.

For those who do choose to pursue the keto diet to lose weight, Dr. Tientcheu typically advises increasing leafy-green vegetable and plant-based protein intake, but also recommends avoiding doing keto for an extended period of time.

"I think we can all agree that the typical American diet incorporates too many refined, simple carbohydrates these days. But, complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, quinoa, sweet potatoes and squash, are an important part of a balanced diet and overall good health," adds Dr. Tientcheu.

Who should eat a heart healthy diet?

Dr. Tientcheu recommends that we all tailor our diets toward the healthy food choices that help prevent heart disease — no matter our age.

But there are some who should take a heart healthy diet more immediately serious than others.

"Everyone benefits from eating healthy, but people who already have established heart disease absolutely need to be eating a heart healthy diet," Dr. Tientcheu stresses. "Additionally, if you are at high risk for heart disease — whether that's due to high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol or having a family history of it — it's also very important for you to take your diet seriously."

And while there's certainly an inflection point in the adult life where heart disease becomes more worrisome, Dr. Tientcheu points out that a heart healthy diet isn't just for aging adults.

"Blood vessel damage and plaque buildup don't just begin overnight. From kids to teens to young adults, this damage can start earlier than you may think. This is why I advocate for everyone to adopt a heart healthy diet and stick with it for life," adds Dr. Tientcheu.

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