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Heart-healthy eating

Heart-healthy eating is an important way to lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. Heart disease is the number one cause of death for American women. Stroke is the number three cause of death.1 To get the most benefit for your heart, you should choose more fruits, vegetables, and foods with whole grains and healthy protein. You also should eat less food with added sugar, calories, and unhealthy fats.

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Why is heart-healthy eating important?

Heart-healthy eating, along with regular exercise or physical activity, can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. Heart disease is the number one cause of death for American women. Stroke is the number three cause of death for American women.1 Learn more about heart disease and stroke prevention.

What foods should I eat to help lower my risk for heart disease and stroke?

You should choose these foods most of the time:

  • Fruits and vegetables. At least half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables.
  • Whole grains. At least half of your grains should be whole grains. Whole grains include:
    • whole wheat
    • whole oats
    • oatmeal
    • whole-grain corn
    • brown rice
    • wild rice
    • whole rye
    • whole-grain barley
    • buckwheat
    • bulgur
    • millet
    • sorghum
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy products. These include milk, calcium-fortified soy drinks (soy milk), cheese, yogurt, and other milk products.
  • Seafood, skinless poultry, lean meats, beans, eggs, and unsalted nuts.

Learn more about how much of each type of food you should eat, based on your weight, height, and activity level.

What foods should I limit to lower my risk of heart disease and stroke?

You should limit:

  • Saturated fats. Saturated fat is usually in pizza, ice cream, fried chicken, many cakes and cookies, bacon, and hamburgers. Check the Nutrition Facts label for saturated fat. Less than 10% of your daily calories should be from saturated fats.
  • Trans fats. These are found mainly in commercially prepared baked goods, snack foods, fried foods, and margarine. The Food and Drug Administration is taking action to remove artificial trans fats from our food supply because of their risk to heart health. Check the Nutrition Facts label and choose foods with no trans fats as much as possible.
  • Cholesterol. Cholesterol is found in foods made from animals, such as bacon, whole milk, cheese made from whole milk, ice cream, full-fat frozen yogurt, and eggs. Fruits and vegetables do not contain cholesterol. Eggs are a major source of dietary cholesterol for Americans, but studies show that eating one egg a day does not increase the risk for heart disease in healthy people.2 You should eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. Check the Nutrition Facts label for cholesterol. Foods with 20% or more of the “Daily Value” of cholesterol are high in cholesterol.
  • Sodium. Sodium is found in salt, but most of the sodium we eat does not come from salt that we add while cooking or at the table. Most of our sodium comes from breads and rolls, cold cuts, pizza, hot dogs, cheese, pasta dishes, and condiments (like ketchup and mustard). Limit your daily sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (equal to a teaspoon), unless your doctor says something else. Check the Nutrition Facts label for sodium. Foods with 20% or more of the “Daily Value” of sodium are high in sodium.
  • Added sugars. Foods like fruit and dairy products naturally contain sugar. But you should limit foods that contain added sugars. These include sodas, sports drinks, cake, candy, and ice cream. Check the Nutrition Facts label for added sugars and limit the how much food you eat with added sugars. Look for these other names for sugar in the list of ingredients:
    • Corn syrup
    • Corn sweetener
    • Fructose
    • Glucose
    • Sucrose
    • Dextrose
    • Lactose
    • Maltose
    • Honey
    • Molasses
    • Raw sugar
    • Invert sugar
    • Syrup
    • Caramel
    • Fruit juice concentrates

How can I tell what is in the foods I eat?

Most packaged foods have a Nutrition Facts label. This label has information about how many calories, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars are in each serving. It also lists the amounts of certain vitamins and minerals. Learn to read the Nutrition Facts label to know what is in the packaged food you buy.

For food that does not have a Nutrition Facts label, such as fresh salmon or a raw apple, you can use the MyPlate SuperTracker "Food-a-pedia" tool. The "Food-a-pedia" tool shows whether a food is high or low in cholesterol, saturated fat, or sodium.

How many calories should I eat?

The number of calories you should eat each day depends on your age, sex, body size, physical activity, and other factors.

For instance, a woman between 31 and 50 years old who is of normal weight and is moderately active (gets 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week) should eat and drink about 2,000 calories each day to maintain her weight. To find your personalized daily calorie limit, use the SuperTracker tool.

Learn more about calories and your calorie requirements.

What tools can help me choose foods that are good for my heart?

The following resources can help you choose heart-healthy foods and create a plan based on your age, sex, height, weight, and activity level:

2014 Top-ranked Diets

The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the TLC (Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes) diets topped the 2014 Best Diets Overall list by the U.S. News and World Report. The DASH diet won best overall diet for the fourth year in a row, and the TLC came in second for the second straight year.

To be top rated, a diet must be relatively easy to follow, nutritious, and safe and effective for weight loss and for the prevention of diabetes and heart disease.

How does sodium in food affect my heart?

Eating foods high in sodium may cause high blood pressure, also called hypertension. Hypertension is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. You should limit the amount of sodium you eat each day to less than 2,300 milligrams (about 1 teaspoon of salt), including the sodium found in packaged foods that you cannot see.

You should limit your sodium intake to less than 1,500 milligrams (about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt) if you:

  • Have high blood pressure
  • Are African-American
  • Are 51 years or older
  • Have diabetes
  • Have chronic kidney disease

You can lower the amount of sodium you eat each day by:

  • Eating fewer processed foods. Most of the salt we eat comes from processed foods rather than salt we add to foods we cook.
  • Checking the sodium content on the Nutrition Facts label. The sodium content in similar foods can vary a lot. For instance, the sodium content in regular tomato soup may be 700 milligrams (about a third of a teaspoon) per cup in one brand and 1,100 milligrams (about a half a teaspoon) per cup in another brand.
  • Seasoning your food with herbs and spices instead of salt. Look for salt-free seasoning combinations in your grocery store.

How does potassium in food affect my heart?

Potassium lessens the harmful effects of sodium on blood pressure. Try to eat or drink at least 4,700 milligrams of potassium a day. Good sources of potassium include:

  • Bananas (442 milligrams for a medium banana)
  • Milk, nonfat and low fat (up to 370 milligrams per cup)
  • Orange juice (496 milligrams per 8-ounce glass of 100% orange juice)
  • Plain yogurt, nonfat or low fat (up to 579 milligrams per 8-ounce carton)
  • Prunes and prune juice (707 milligrams per 8-ounce glass)
  • Spinach (up to 419 milligrams per half cup)
  • Sweet potatoes (542 milligrams for a medium-sized sweet potato)
  • Tomatoes and tomato products (664 milligrams for one-half cup of tomato paste; 405 milligrams for one-half cup of tomato sauce)
  • White potatoes (738 milligrams per small potato)

Check out the USDA National Nutrient Database Nutrient Lists to search for more foods rich in potassium.

How does cholesterol in food affect my heart?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by your body. It also is found in foods made from animals, like meat and dairy. Fruits and vegetables do not contain cholesterol. There are two types of cholesterol: HDL, or "good" cholesterol, and LDL, or "bad" cholesterol. Higher levels of total cholesterol and LDL or "bad" cholesterol raise your risk for heart disease. Almost half of American women have high or borderline high cholesterol.

You can lower your cholesterol and LDL or "bad" cholesterol by:

  • Limiting foods that are high in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol. Find a list of these foods in the section "What foods should I limit to lower my risk of heart disease and stroke?".
  • Limiting cholesterol. Try to eat or drink less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol each day. For comparison, a fast food double-patty plain cheeseburger has about 100 milligrams of cholesterol.

You can learn more about cholesterol at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) website.

Is eating seafood good for my heart?

Yes. Seafood contains a type of fat called omega-3 fatty acids. Research suggests that eating about 8 ounces of seafood with omega-3 fatty acids per week can lower your risk of dying from heart disease.2

Seafood that naturally contain more oil and are better sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Salmon
  • Trout
  • Mackerel
  • Anchovies
  • Sardines

Lean fish (such as cod, haddock, and catfish) have less omega-3 fatty acids.

Is drinking alcohol good for my heart?

Maybe. Research suggests that moderate drinkers are less likely to develop heart disease than people who do not drink any alcohol or who drink too much. For women, moderate drinking means up to one drink per day. For men, it means up to two drinks per day. One drink is:

  • One glass of wine (5 ounces)
  • One can of beer (12 ounces)
  • One shot of 80-proof hard liquor (1.5 ounces)

The reasons behind the benefit of moderate drinking on heart disease are not clear. But, moderate drinking is also linked to breast cancer, violence, and injuries. So, if you do not already drink, you should not start for the potential benefits to your heart.2

You should also not drink alcohol if you are pregnant or may be pregnant, as there is no amount of alcohol that is known to be safe during pregnancy. You should not drink alcohol if you have another health condition that makes alcohol harmful.

Yes. Research suggests that moderate drinkers are less likely to develop heart disease than people who do not drink any alcohol or who drink too much. For women, moderate drinking means up to one drink per day. For men, it means up to two drinks per day. One drink is:

  • One glass of wine (5 ounces)
  • One can of beer (12 ounces)
  • One shot of 80-proof hard liquor (1.5 ounces)

The reasons behind the benefit of moderate drinking on heart disease are not clear. But, moderate drinking is also linked to breast cancer, violence, and injuries. So, if you do not already drink, you should not start for the potential benefits to your heart.2

You should also not drink alcohol if you are pregnant or may be pregnant, as there is no amount of alcohol that is known to be safe during pregnancy. You should not drink alcohol if you have another health condition that makes alcohol harmful.

Who can help me work out an eating plan that is best for me?

You may want to talk with a registered dietitian. A dietitian is a nutrition expert who can give you advice about what foods to eat and how much of each type. Ask your doctor to recommend a dietitian. You can also contact the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

How can I get free or low-cost nutrition counseling?

Nutrition counseling for adults at higher risk of chronic disease must be covered by most insurers under the Affordable Care Act (the health care law). If you are at risk for heart disease or another chronic disease that is affected by what you eat, most insurance plans now cover nutrition counseling at no cost to you.3

  • If you have insurance, check with your insurance provider before you visit a health professional for diet counseling to find out what types of services are covered.
  • If you have Medicare, find out how Medicare covers nutrition counseling.
  • If you have Medicaid, the benefits covered are different in each state, but certain benefits must be covered by every Medicaid program. Check with your state’s Medicaid program to find out what is covered.

For information about other services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.

For more information...

For more information on heart-healthy eating, call the OWH Helpline at 800-994-9662 or contact the following organizations:

Sources

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Leading Causes of Death in Females, United States, 2010.
  2. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2012). Preventive Services Covered Under the Affordable Care Act.

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All material contained in this fact sheet is free of copyright restrictions, and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women’s Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. Citation of the source is appreciated.

Content last updated: August 18, 2014.

Content last reviewed: June 30, 2014.

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