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Eating for a Healthy Heart

While the way to heart health may not be through your stomach, healthy eating is essential to cardiovascular wellness. What you eat and drink can impact your heart health in a variety of ways, for better and for worse. Read on to see how diet impacts heart health.


Certain foods, including red and processed meats, saturated fats, sugar, and refined carbohydrates, can damage the endothelium, a thin membrane that lines the blood vessels and the inside of the heart. This triggers inflammation, a natural immune response to an illness or injury. In the short term, inflammation promotes healing, but chronic inflammation of the endothelium is another story. It irritates the blood vessels, worsens atherosclerosis, and can cause plaque to loosen and break off, creating dangerous blood clots that can lead to a stroke or heart attack.

High blood sugar

Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for your body, but not all carbs are created equal. Complex carbohydrates, like those found in vegetables, fruits, and whole grain products, are made up of fiber, starch, and sugar. Because they take a while to digest, complex carbohydrates reduce spikes in your blood sugar, keep your digestion regular, and help control your cholesterol.

Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar, lack beneficial fiber and starch. Naturally occurring simple carbohydrates, such as those found in fruits and milk, contain healthy nutrients, but most of the simple carbs we consume are in candies, pastries, soda, and other processed foods. Sugar is rapidly digested, causing blood glucose to spike. When overconsumed, it also leads to weight gain. The body stores extra calories as triglycerides, a type of fat that increases heart disease risk. Excess weight also raises your levels of plaque-forming LDL cholesterol and contributes to high blood pressure. Too much sugar in your diet can lead to pre-diabetes, and eventually, diabetes.

Sugar is a common ingredient in processed food, including everything from canned soup to spaghetti sauce. Always read labels and understand what they mean to protect yourself from hidden sources of sugar.

  • “Sugar-free” means the product has less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving
  • “Reduced sugar” means at least 25% less sugar compared to what the product typically contains
  • “No added sugars” indicates that no sugar containing ingredient is added during processing
  • “Total sugars” refers to the sum of the natural and added sugars contained in the food.

High blood pressure

Chances are, you already know salt is bad for your heart. Too much salt in the diet causes fluid retention, which raises your blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Try to keep your sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day, the equivalent of about one level teaspoon of salt. If you have heart issues, your doctor will likely give you a lower target. People think of salt as what they add from the salt shaker, but the biggest source of excess salt in your diet could be processed foods which are packed with sodium-based preservatives and flavor enhancers. Try to avoid these foods and get in the habit of reading labels. If you can’t pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.

Cholesterol levels

As you might suspect, eating too much fat can be fattening! However, small amounts of the right fats are an important part of a healthy diet. Fat helps the body process vitamin A, vitamin D and vitamin E, all of which can only be absorbed with the help of fats. Rather than adopting a low-fat diet, focus on eating beneficial “good” fats and avoiding harmful “bad” fats.

  • Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats lower disease risk. Eaten in moderation, these fats help reduce levels of bad cholesterol in your blood and provide vitamin E and other nutrients to help maintain your body’s cells. Olive, canola, peanut, safflower, and sesame oils are all monounsaturated fats. Soybean, corn, and sunflower oils are polyunsaturated fats.
  • Saturated fats mostly come from animal sources such as meat, poultry, full-fat dairy products, and eggs. They are also found in coconut and palm oil. These fats raise your cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease.
  • Trans fats are the worst type of fat you can eat. They raise your levels of bad cholesterol while simultaneously lowering your good cholesterol.

While meat and milk products may contain small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats, most of the trans fats we eat are factory-made. The processed and fast food industries like them because they are cheap and easy to produce, last a long time, and can be used repeatedly in the fryer. If you see “partially hydrogenated oils” on a food label, that means a food contains trans fats.

Your heart on alcohol

The CDC’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as a maximum of two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. In addition to affecting your judgment, coordination, and eventually, your liver, alcohol is bad for your cardiovascular system. Over time, excessive drinking causes an increased and/or irregular heart rate, high blood pressure, and cardiomyopathy, a weakening and enlarging of the heart that leads to congestive heart failure. All of these changes increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Make nutritious delicious, with the Mediterranean diet

By now, you’ve probably heard about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. This is not a weight loss diet ― it’s a way of eating that has sustained cultures living around the Mediterranean Sea for hundreds of years. The principles of this diet are simple. Simply enjoy:

  • Unprocessed foods
  • Whole grains
  • Plenty of veggies
  • Legumes (lentils, adzuki beans, black beans, soybeans, anasazi beans, fava beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, and lima beans)
  • Healthy fats (oils, nuts, and seeds)
  • Fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (mackerel, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon)
  • Fruit for dessert, with sweets only occasionally
  • Dairy and poultry in moderation ― red meat rarely and in small quantities

Heart-smart nutrition doesn’t have to make you feel deprived. There are countless delicious foods you can add to your diet that will please both your heart and your tastebuds. And you don’t have to entirely give up ribs, ice cream, or fettuccine Alfredo. Consider them a special treat and enjoy them less frequently.

Ready to get serious about eating a more nutritious diet? Community Memorial Healthcare offers a variety of nutrition and wellness coaching services to help with everything from chronic disease management and weight loss to general health and wellness. Learn more.