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The Heart Healthy Diet E-mail
Written by Jeff Behar   

Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.  Diet and exercise are the two most important lifestyle factors that a person can control that can improve their risk factors for heart disease. The following suggestions are geared towards those at risk of heart disease. 

Items to Limit or Eliminate in Your Diet

Foods high in cholesterol and saturated fat. Saturated fat is the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol. The worst offenders are:

  • Red meat, pork, bacon, sausage, and processed meats.
  • Full-fat dairy products, such as cream, half-and-half, and whole-milk dairy products, such as butter, cheese, ice cream, and sour cream.
  • Coconut oil, hydrogenated vegetable oil, palm oil, (often called tropical oils), and cocoa butter palm kernel oil.
  • Liver and other organ meats.
  • Chicken, duck or turkey with skin.
  • Egg yolks
Foods high in trans fatty acid (TFAs). Trans fatty acids, which have been shown to spike LDL levels even more than saturated fats, are very detrimental. Trans-fatty acids (TFA) are found in small amounts in various animal products such as beef, pork, lamb and the butterfat in butter and milk. TFA are also found in high amounts in:

  • Margarine, margarine spreads, shortening, and many cooking oils.
  • Many cake mixes.
  • Certain soups like ramen noodles.
  • Many fast foods deep-fried in partially hydrogenated oil (e.g., such  french fries, onion rings, etc.).
  • Baked goods. More trans fats are used in commercially baked products than any other foods. Doughnuts are one of the worst offenders. Most doughnuts pack a double whammy of TFAs; they contain shortening in the dough and are cooked in trans fat.
  • Cookies and cakes (with shortening-based frostings).
  • Chips and Crackers. Shortening provides crispy texture. Even "reduced fat" brands can still have trans fat. Anything fried (like potato chips and corn chips) or buttery crackers have trans fat.
  • Many types of frozen foods (e..g., pies, pizzas, waffles, breaded fish, pot pie, etc.). Caution, even if the label says it's low-fat, it can still contain unhealthy trans fat!
  • Microwave popcorn.
  • Many breakfast foods. There are many breakfast cereals and energy bars on the market that are highly processed products that contain significant amounts of TFAs.
  • Any manufactured food that lists “partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil” as an ingredient probably contains trans fatty acids.

Salt (sodium).  Eating a lot of salt can contribute to hypertension (high blood pressure) a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Reducing the salt in your food is an important part of a heart-healthy diet.  Sodium can sneak into your diet in many ways. Many canned and processed foods, like soups and frozen dinners contain high of sodium. Several condiments also contain large amounts. 
The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day (about a teaspoon).

Polyunsaturated and saturated oil.
They increase the cholesterol and triglycerides levels.

Refined carbohydrates and sugar. Simple carbohydrates such as breads, bagels, and pasta increase the calorie count and stimulate an insulin response, which increases the likelihood that those calories will be converted into fat and therefore their consumption should be minimized.

Breads and pasta made from refined white flour. These foods spike blood suar levels.

Caffeine. Avoid drinking alcohol, coffee, tea, sodas and anything else that contain caffeine because they increase serum cholesterol and triglycerides for your body.

Sugar-sweetened cereals, muffins or doughnuts. These foods contain large amounts of calories, fats, sugars and more.

Items to Include in Your Diet

Complex and fibrous carbohydrates. A heart-healthy diet is filled with complex carbohydrates that are low in total fat, saturated fat, and sugar content, such as, green leafy vegetables, fruit, and whole grains in their natural forms. These foods are the building blocks of good health and they keep the blood sugar at a constant level.

Vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruits are good sources of vitamins and minerals; they are low in calories and rich in dietary fiber. A diet high in soluble fiber, the kind found in fruits and vegetables, can help lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease. Many vegetables and fruits also contain substances found in plants that may help prevent cardiovascular disease.

Fish is high in omega-3-fatty acids. 
Research has shown that omega-3 fatty decrease risk of heart arrhythmias, which can lead to sudden cardiac death; decrease growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque; decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol; increase serum HDL (good) cholesterol; and lower blood pressure (slightly). Fatty fish like albacore tuna, salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring, and sardines  are high in two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Other sources of omega-3-fatty acids are flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil.

Chicken and turkey breast. Eat more skinless chicken breast and turkey breast and very little red meats (12-16 oz. per month).

Whole grains. Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients. Whole grains are also a source of vitamins and minerals, such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, zinc and iron. Various nutrients found in whole grains play a role in regulating blood pressure and heart health.

Foods high in soluble dietary fiber. Studies have shown that a diet rich in soluble fiber reduces blood cholesterol levels. When eaten regularly as part of a diet low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, soluble fiber has been associated with increased diet quality and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Soluble  fibersmodestly reduce LDL cholesterol beyond levels achieved by a diet low in saturated and trans fatty acids and cholesterol alone. Oats have the highest proportion of soluble fiber of any grain. Foods high in soluble fiber include oat bran, oatmeal, peas, rice bran, barley, citrus fruits, strawberries, apple pulp, broccoli, carrots, barley, apples, prunes, bananas, blackberries, pears, chick peas, black-eyed peas, lima beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, and lentils.

Foods high in insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber has been associated with decreased cardiovascular risk and slower progression of cardiovascular disease in high-risk individuals. Foods high in insoluble fiber include rye, rice, barley, wheat and most other grains, cabbage, beets, carrots, Brussels sprouts, turnips, cauliflower, and apple skin.  Note: many commercial oat bran and wheat bran products  actually contain very little bran, and often are high in sodium, total fat and saturated fat, so read the labels carefully!Vegetable oils and margarines with liquid vegetable oil as the first listed ingredient. These oils should have no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. Examples are canola, corn, olive, safflower, sesame, soybean and sunflower oils. For margaine choices, consider margarine labeled "trans fat-free" or  Cholesterol-lowering margarine, such as Benecol, Promise activ or Smart Balance. Remember that coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil are high in saturated fat, even though they're vegetable oils and have no cholesterol and should be avoided.
High-fiber cereals for breakfast, such as bran flakes, oats, or shredded wheat.

Low fat dairy products.

Herbs, spices, and salt-free seasoning blends for cooking and at the table.


A heart-healthy diet is about balance. A simple rule of thumb is to remember to keep your portion size for meat, poultry and fish about the size of a deck of cards. This makes room on your plate for servings of heart healthy fibrous vegetables, fruits and whole grains. 

A heart healthy diet is also a diet that allows indulgences every now and then as long as you eat healthy foods most of the time.

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