If you want to boost your heart health, start by changing what’s on your plate. Making simple tweaks could have big benefits.
Believe the hype: You've heard a lot about eating heart-healthy, but does it really matter? Yes. One study of more than 42,000 healthy women found that those who ate a healthy diet -- with an emphasis on vegetables, lean meats, grains, and low-fat dairy -- were 31% less likely to die in the next 6 years than women with unhealthy diets.
Don't diet: A crash diet may work if you're trying to fit into a dress by next month. But if you're trying to improve your heart health, cycling through different fad diets won't help. Diets that demonize one type of food -- whether it's carbs or fat -- don't work either. Instead, take a sensible approach. Focus on lean meats, vegetables, and whole grains to get long-term benefits for your heart and your waistline.
Don't gorge yourself: Obviously, overeating will cause you to gain weight. That's not all. Studies have found that more people have heart attacks after big meals.
Sea salt is still salt: Most people think sea salt is a low-sodium alternative to regular table salt. Wrong. It has the same amount of sodium. Any type of salt increases your blood pressure. You probably need to eat less salt; most people do. The guideline is no more than a teaspoon a day. If you already have high blood pressure, you should eat even less. And, it doesn’t just come from the salt shaker. Up to 75% of the salt you consume comes from processed foods such as soups and frozen meals. If your food comes in a can or a box, check the sodium content.
Avoid caffeine: If you have atrial fibrillation, caffeine and other stimulants can trigger symptoms. A little wine may be good, but a lot is not. Yes, studies show that drinking modest amounts of alcohol -- not just wine -- has heart benefits. But don't assume that if a glass is good, a jug must be better. Excess alcohol -- more than one drink a day for women or two for men -- increases your risk for heart problems. It drives up blood pressure and can trigger irregular heartbeats in people with atrial fibrillation.
Choose meats wisely: Red meat is usually high in saturated fat, which is bad for your heart. That doesn't mean you have to banish meat from your diet. Just be savvy. Choose the leanest cuts and always cut off the fat. Look for cuts such as sirloin, flank, rump roast, and tenderloin. Or, choose pork tenderloin, turkey or chicken breast, as an alternative.
Add more fish to your diet: You probably know that fish is good for you -- but not all fish is equal. Deep-fried cod doesn't count. Instead, grill or roast fish that is high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, trout, and sardines.
Eat whole grains: What's so special about whole grains? They help control your blood sugar, reducing your risk of diabetes by 20% to 30%. People who eat a lot of whole grains tend to weigh less, too. Go for whole-wheat breads, brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, cornmeal, barley, and rye.
Eat less deli: Think that a smoked turkey sandwich is a healthier choice than a burger? Don't be so sure. Deli meats are often packed with salts, nitrates, and preservatives that can be bad for your heart. Instead, go for whole chicken breasts or in-house roasted turkey.
Eat less when eating out: Experts say we're eating too many calories. Restaurant portion sizes may have a lot to do with it. According to the CDC, the amount of food in one average restaurant meal today is like four average restaurant meals from the 1950s. Studies have also found that the bigger the portion served, the more we'll eat. The solution? Get in the habit of only eating half of what's on your plate. You can take the rest home.
Fill up on fiber: Fiber absorbs fat during digestion and reduces swelling in your arteries. It also helps with weight control because it makes you feel full faster -- and improves your digestive health. What's not to like? Fruit, vegetables, nuts, and beans are all good sources of fiber.
Note: If you have atrial fibrillation or another condition treated with an anticoagulant like Coumadin (warfarin), be on the alert for vegetables with vitamin K. This vitamin can reduce the drug's effectiveness.
Veggies with vitamin K include Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, spinach, and turnip greens. If you eat these foods, keep the amount you eat about the same from day to day. If you want to add any of these foods to your diet, talk to your doctor first. You may be able to introduce small amounts slowly.
The good news is that these actions help everyone -- whether you're trying to prevent heart problems in the future, are already living with high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or have a problem like atrial fibrillation, which often results from a diet-related heart problem.
The best news is: It's never too early -- or too late -- to improve your diet and heart health.