A Heart-Healthy Diet Is Easy and Satisfying

Kelsey Coulter, RDN, has been practicing as a registered dietitian since 2020, after completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Delaware. She currently provides medical nutrition therapy in the acute care setting as well as nutrition counseling and education for the cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation program at Inova Loudoun Hospital.

Kelly Ellington, RDN, CSOWM, earned her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech in human nutrition, foods and exercise in 2013. She has been practicing medical nutrition therapy and health counseling since 2014 in a variety of settings including acute care, community outreach and outpatient clinics. She is a dietitian clinical specialist for the cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation program at Inova Fairfax Hospital.  

Eating tasty food can be one of life’s great pleasures. Fortunately, a diet that is good for your heart can also be delicious and satisfying. A heart-healthy diet promotes weight loss, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, and helps control blood sugar levels. The best foods to eat are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and unsaturated fats. A heart-healthy diet is also high in fiber-rich plant foods (beans, peas, nuts and seeds) and low in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.

The Scoop on Sugar

Traditional heart-healthy nutrition guidance has focused mainly on decreasing dietary fat and sodium and increasing fiber to improve long-term health outcomes. While these guidelines are still relevant, current research has revealed the importance of limiting added sugar to support heart health.

A diet that is high in added sugar can lead to high triglyceride levels in the blood and may contribute to inflammation within the coronary arteries. Added sugar can be found in sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts and some packaged convenience items such as breakfast cereal, granola bars and frozen dinners. White sugar, brown sugar, honey and syrup also count as added sugar when used to flavor foods and drinks.

Be Smart About Restaurant Food

Eating healthy, home-cooked meals is often easier than knowing what to choose when eating out in restaurants. Restaurant meals, while delicious, can carry hidden risks for heart health. One reason is that portion sizes tend to be much bigger than what you may serve yourself at home. In addition, cooking methods in restaurants can add extra sodium, fat, sugar and calories.

However, restaurants with more than 20 locations are required by law to publish nutrition facts about their menus, usually online or in a pamphlet. Consider checking out the nutrition facts of your favorite menu items before ordering, so you can make an informed decision.

If this information is not available, look for heart-healthy cooking methods on the menu such as grilled, broiled, roasted, baked and steamed items. Limit foods that are deep fried or that are described as “crispy,” “creamy,” “battered,” “golden” or “tempura.” Order sauces, gravies, condiments and dressings on the side and use sparingly. You should also consider splitting your order with a companion or pack up half of your meal in a to-go box for lunch tomorrow.

 With these tips in mind, ordering a heart-healthy dish at a restaurant can be much easier.

Top 5 Takeaways

  1. Get adequate fiber. Fiber has many heart health benefits and helps reduce LDL cholesterol. Most adults should aim for at least 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day.
  2. Choose fats wisely. Fat is an essential nutrient for several functions in the body. However, the type of fat you consume is important. Try to avoid trans fats, which have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol. Limit intake of saturated fats (found in animal proteins, whole fat dairy, and palm or coconut oil), which can also raise LDL cholesterol. Regularly incorporate unsaturated fats from sources like olive oil, avocados, nuts and fatty fish.
  3. Limit sodium intake. Excessive sodium in the diet increases risk for high blood pressure, stroke and heart failure. To keep daily sodium intake under 1,500 milligrams, try to limit high sodium foods such as canned soups, soy sauce, deli meats and processed cheeses. Limit sodium when cooking by using herbs, spices and other flavorings in place of salt.
  4. Limit added sugars. Men should limit their intake of added sugars to 36 grams per day (9 teaspoons), and women should not consume more than 24 grams per day of added sugar (6 teaspoons).
  5. Vary protein sources. Incorporate plant proteins such as beans, peas, lentils and tofu, which are naturally low in cholesterol and saturated fat. Aim for at least two servings (6 ounces) of omega-3-rich fish such as tuna, salmon, sardines and herring per week.

Transitioning to a heart-healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to happen overnight. Research shows that setting small, attainable goals one at a time is more likely to lead to long-term success. Take your time and be kind to yourself as you continue on your health journey.

For delicious recipes and more information on how to keep your heart healthy, visit inova.org/healthy-heart.

Kelsey Coulter, RDN and Kelly Ellington, RDN, CSOWM

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Kelsey Coulter, RDN and Kelly Ellington, RDN, CSOWM

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