What Is a Heart-Healthy Diet?

February is American Heart Month.

Most of us have a favorite comfort food that we reach for from time to time that isn’t exactly healthy (looking at you, French fries). But what you eat every day has a big impact on your heart health.

Investigation shows that eating more processed foods (i.e. those damn french fries), red meat, and refined sugar can lead to cardiovascular disease, including heart disease. And heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States.

Read: Symptoms of heart attacks in women >>

Of course, it’s not always easy to choose an apple over an apple fritter, but the wide range of foods that are considered heart-healthy may surprise you. “[A heart-healthy diet] “It’s not as boring as people might think,” said cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the Atria Institute in New York City, associate professor of medicine at New York University Grossman School of Medicine and a member of the HealthyWomen Women’s Health Advisory Council. “It’s just lower in meats and sweets.”

What is a heart healthy diet?

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Low-carb, high-protein diets, like the ketogenic diet, have been in the spotlight in recent years. But a high-protein, high-fat way of eating can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease.

Goldberg said the best example of a heart-healthy diet is Mediterranean diet. “To be more specific, it is predominantly plant-based with lean protein components and also fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

The diet is based on foods and eating habits from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including Italy and France.

The Mediterranean diet food list also includes:

  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Potatoes
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Extra virgin olive oil

In general, a Mediterranean-style diet favors fresh, local ingredients, very small amounts of red meat (if at all), and fruit for those with a sweet tooth.

“The diet really helps reduce cholesterol and heart disease risk because it is low in saturated fat, but it uses healthy fats like olive oil and omega-3 fats from fish, and those oils don’t raise cholesterol,” he said. Goldberg.

High levels of LDL cholesterol increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. So, less LDL means a healthier heart. One study found that women who closely followed a Mediterranean-style eating pattern had a 25% lower risk of heart attack and stroke compared to women who did not follow a Mediterranean diet.

Read: 5 foods that will help you live to be 100 (for real) >>

Even people with familial hypercholesterolemia, inherited high cholesterol, can adopt a heart-healthy eating plan to reduce the risk of developing heart disease (although many people also need medication). Research shows that combining cholesterol-lowering medications and a healthy diet can reduce the risk of heart disease by 80%.

Mediterranean-style eating can reduce the risk of high blood pressure, which can cause heart problems, as well as reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Know your risk of heart disease

Women having their blood pressure taken

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Everyone should see a healthcare provider (HCP) at least once a year for a checkup. Goldberg said it’s important to have an in-person visit to check your blood pressure. “Have your blood pressure checked to make sure it’s within the normal range or, if it’s out of range, to know how best to treat it.”

Goldberg said blood tests for cholesterol are also important for heart health. In addition to a lipid panel (the common cholesterol test), women and people assigned female at birth may want to ask about Apo B and lipoprotein(a) blood tests. Lipoprotein A measures a type of LDL and can be used to diagnose heart disease. The Apo B test measures your risk of cardiovascular disease based on the amount of Apo B in your blood. Apo B helps produce plaque that can block arteries.

“These measurements are used to refine cholesterol assessment and are useful in assessing what your treatment needs would be,” Goldberg said. Other tests, such as an electrocardiogram, can also be useful in measuring your risk, as it analyzes your heart rhythm and can show if you have had a previous heart attack.

It may be tempting to skip the doctor’s office and try an at-home cholesterol test, but Goldberg said at-home testing should be considered an adjunct to your office visit. “There are certain nuances when treating cholesterol, and a home cholesterol test won’t tell you the whole story.”

Incorporate heart-healthy foods into your diet

Salmon fillet with vegetables cooked in a cast iron skillet

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Change is never easy and changing the way you eat can feel overwhelming. Start with some basic changes, like using extra virgin olive oil instead of butter and fish instead of steak. Goldberg said a good trick is to cover half of his plate with vegetables so he knows he’s getting all the heart-healthy nutrients during the meal.

And bring breakfast. “I know some research says breakfast isn’t important, but I think it’s a great way to start the day,” he said. “Try oatmeal and berries. “Oats make whole grains and the berries are full of antioxidants.”

All things considered, a heart-healthy diet can save your life, considering the grim statistics on women and cardiovascular disease. There are things you can do to reduce your risk and have a happy, healthy heart.

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