What Heart Healthy Eating Looks Like

Learning to change how you eat to help your heart get healthier can seem intimidating. Gaurav Sharma, MD, explains that it doesn’t have to be.

Feb. 9, 2024 5   min read

Woman looks at produce in grocery store aisle

Eating a heart healthy diet can sound overwhelming for some people. Changing a long-held routine like your eating habits is not easy – but with small steps over time, you can do it.

A poor-quality diet is strongly associated with a higher risk of serious illness or death from heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Knowing the difference between poor quality and high-quality foods can be a good start toward giving your body what it needs to keep your heart stronger for years to come.

For advice on how to start thinking differently about heart healthy eating, we turned to Gaurav Sharma, MD, a non-invasive and preventative cardiologist working with the Sands-Constellation Heart Institute.

How food affects your heart

Your heart is the muscle that pumps blood carrying oxygen throughout your body and keeps everything else going. To keep that blood flow going normally, you need to make sure your blood pressure and cholesterol levels stay in a certain range.

When you eat foods that are processed and have more saturated fats, it raises the body’s LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) and triglyceride (type of fat) levels, which can lead to a higher risk of heart-related problems.

By reducing the amount of saturated fats and processed foods you are eating, your blood pressure and cholesterol levels will be better and reduce the risk of heart issues.

It is important to acknowledge that a person’s genetics can play a significant role in how their body responds to certain types of food. That being said, eating healthy and seeing how changes to your diet affect your heart health is better than not eating healthy at all.

“The best foods for protecting your heart and preventing heart-related issues are the ones in a whole food-based diet,” Dr. Sharma said.

What a heart healthy diet looks like

Eating heart healthy foods comes down to four words, according to Dr. Sharma: “Whole foods. More plants.” Whole foods are foods that are straight out of the ground (or tree) and have gone through minimal, if any, processing. Think of fruits, vegetables, beans, brown rice, milk, or yogurt – all foods that have few extra ingredients added to them.

Nutrition and heart experts recommend getting at least half of your daily food from fruits and vegetables, one quarter of your daily food from whole grains, and the other quarter from lean proteins.

Eating apples, bananas, and oranges are good fruits, but berries carry more fiber and less sugar – which can matter for some patients who are living with diabetes.

Whole grains foods include bread, pasta, quinoa, oats, barley, and farro that are labeled as whole grain. Whole grains are good for your heart because they have more fiber, which is shown by several studies and scientific reviews to help lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Whole grains make your stomach feel fuller more quickly, so your body gets what it needs without eating large portions.

When it comes to proteins, try to eat more plants with protein like beans, nuts, seeds, lentils, and tofu. If you are eating meat, choose options that have less saturated fats – think chicken or fish over sirloin or pork.

“Try to start by eating a couple more fruits or vegetables in a day,” Dr. Sharma said. “You are going to feel more satisfied because you will be fuller.”

Making the change

People often want to eat healthier but don’t know how or where to start. Three diets that are considered ‘heart healthy’ are the Mediterranean diet (with a focus on plants), the DASH diet, and whole food, plant-based eating. Each one prioritizes eating minimally processed foods, plenty of fruits & vegetables, and minimizing the amount of fatty animal protein being eaten.

When looking for recipes or nutrition advice for plant-based eating, Rochester Regional Health heart and lifestyle medicine providers alike suggest Forks Over Knives as a resource.

Nutrition experts suggest a plant-based diet is one of the best choices you can make to keep your body healthy for a long period of time. At the same time, changing over the way you eat is not as easy as flipping a switch. Take heart healthy eating changes slow – for example, swap out a regular meal with a plant-based one once a week to start.

“People have been eating a certain way for many years,” Dr. Sharma said. “It is hard to change your pattern of eating in a dramatic way. No one has to be perfect all of the time, but making small changes to how you eat and minimizing the amount of processed food you eat is going to offer you long-term benefits.”

NEXT STEPS From Our Hearts To Yours

Our Sands-Constellation Heart Institute provides comprehensive cardiac care throughout the region. From prevention and heart monitoring to surgery and long-term recovery from transplant, we're here every step of the way.

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