Heart Healthy Nutrition Tips

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Heart disease is the world's number one cause of death for both men and women. That's one in every four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some heart risk factors are hereditary, but for most people a healthy diet and lifestyle are your best weapons in the fight against heart disease. Learn how to help improve your heart health by watching your weight, getting regular physical activity, controlling portion sizes and eating foods that are good for you. Use this information to help make smart choices that may benefit your heart and overall health.

What Is a Heart Healthy Diet?

A heart healthy diet contains:

  • Plenty of vegetables and fruits (4.5 cups/day)
  • High fiber whole grains
  • Lean protein
  • Omega-3 rich seafood (twice a week)
  • Cholesterol lowering beans and nuts (4 servings/week)
  • Healthy vegetable oils

Foods should be low in saturated fat, less than 7% of total calories, and less than 1 percent of total calories from trans fats. Cholesterol should be limited to 300 milligrams daily for healthy adults and less than 200 milligrams daily for adults with elevated cholesterol levels.

Limiting sodium can be another important weapon against heart disease. Excess sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Healthy adults should limit sodium to 2300 milligrams daily, while people over 51 years old, African-Americans and people with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should only consume 1500 milligrams daily.

You should have no more than 2 servings a week of processed meats.

Other factors that may help achieve ideal cardiovascular health and add years to your life beyond diet, according to the American Heart Association (AHA):

  • Don't smoke
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Engage in regular physical activity
  • Manage blood pressure
  • Take charge of cholesterol and keep blood sugar, or glucose, at healthy levels

Portion Sizes

Selecting the right foods is important, but so is making sure your portion sizes are reasonable. Going for second helpings and overloading your plate can result in extra calories, sodium, fat and cholesterol.

To help you eat in accordance with the 2010 USDA's Dietary Guidelines and My Plate portion sizes should be based upon standard serving sizes. For example, suggested servings for meat, poultry and fish are generally 3 to 4 ounces, cooked. A recommended portion of a starch-based side dish, such as rice or potatoes, is generally 1/2 cup. Vegetable side dishes are a minimum of 1/2 cup.

Heart Healthy Recipe Guidelines

To help identify and highlight heart healthy recipes, the following criteria will be used:

Calories: Based on 2,000 calories a day, the calorie levels are appropriate for an average person who is trying to maintain a healthy weight.

Saturated Fat: The amount of saturated fat is more important than total fat when it comes to heart health. A heart healthy recipe should replace bad fats with good ones for overall health. The current AHA recommendation of 7% calories from saturated fat implies a 12-15 gram daily total for saturated fat. This threshold can be met with the limits listed below.

Sodium: Based on the 2,300 mg per day goal set by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Generally, foods low in sodium and high in potassium are considered beneficial for maintaining blood pressure within a healthy range.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fish recipes that provide Omega-3 fatty acids are a nutrition bonus. Omega-3 fatty acids are cardio-protective and healthy fats. The AHA recommends two servings a week of Omega-3 rich fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, cod and mackerel.

Vitamins and Minerals: Recipes that contain 15% of the daily value of any nutrient would be considered a good
source and a bonus for heart health.

Category Saturated Fat Sodium Calories Total fat
Entrees 3-5 grams <480 mg <500 <20 grams
Side dishes 2 grams <360 mg <250 <10 grams
Desserts 2 grams <360 mg <350 <10 grams
Combination meals 5-7 grams <480 mg <600 <25 grams
Complete meals 7 grams <600 mg <750 <25 grams

*Combination meals would be a meal that includes a serving of meat/poultry/fish plus a starch side dish.
*Complete meals would be a meal that includes a serving of each of the following: meat/poultry/fish, a starch and a vegetable.