Eating for Heart Health

Eat Plenty of Fiber

Including fiber in your diet is good for your health in lots of ways. A diet rich in soluble fiber foods can improve your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. It can help you feel fuller, so you may eat less and help maintain a heart healthy weight.

What exactly is fiber?

Fiber is the part of plant foods that our bodies can't absorb or digest. It is found in fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Fiber is also known as roughage or bulk. There are two kinds of dietary fiber: insoluble and soluble. It is important to eat plenty of both.

Insoluble fiber comes from fruits, grains, and vegetables. It adds bulk and acts like a brush to clean out the colon. As it passes through the digestive tract, insoluble fiber remains mostly intact. This helps keep your bowel movements regular.

Soluble fiber comes from fruit, some vegetables, oats, beans, peas, lentils, and barley. It forms a gel when mixed with liquid that helps control blood sugar and reduces cholesterol.

Adding more fiber to your diet
  • Eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Eat the skins and peels whenever you can, because they contain a lot of fiber.
  • Try more recipes with beans, peas, lentils, quinoa, bulgur, or brown rice.
  • Eat oatmeal, bran, or another whole-grain cereal for breakfast.
  • Choose breads, cereals, tortillas, and crackers that list a whole grain as the first ingredient on the label.
  • Make at least half of your grain servings whole grains.
  • Add fiber to your diet slowly. If you add it too fast, you may feel bloated or have gas pains.
  • Unless your doctor has told you not to, drink 6 to 8 cups of water or other fluids a day to keep things moving smoothly through your intestines.
  • If you eat wheat bran to keep your bowels moving, start with 1 teaspoon per meal. Increase slowly to 2 to 4 tablespoons a day.
  • Buy unprocessed foods when you can. Food processing often removes fiber.
  • Read food labels. Look for the "dietary fiber" content. Good sources of fiber have at least 10% of the "percent daily value" of fiber.

Good Fats and Bad Fats

Fat is a necessary part of a healthy eating plan. It supplies your body with energy and essential fatty acids (EFA). Fat from your diet also helps you to absorb vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. However, not all fats are created equal. To eat a healthy diet, choose foods with fats that help protect your heart and reduce your heart disease risk.

Research shows that a very low fat diet is not necessary to protect the heart. Instead, the goal is to eat a moderate amount of healthy fat combined with more fiber-rich whole grains each day. A moderate amount of fat means no more than 25 to 35 percent of your total daily calories come from fat.

Eating foods with lots of saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol can raise the LDL (or "bad" cholesterol) and triglyceride levels in your blood. Having high levels of LDL and triglycerides puts you at greater risk for heart disease. Trans fats also increase your risk for heart disease because they lower HDL, or "good" cholesterol. A high level of HDL cholesterol in your blood helps to protect your heart.

Which fats help to protect my heart?
  • Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats help to raise your HDL level.
  • Omega-3s, an important polyunsaturated fat, are found in fish oils and some plant sources, and they protect your heart in several ways. Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation inside your blood vessels, which slows plaque buildup in the arteries. Selecting up to 12 ounces of fish a week helps your heart while limiting your exposure to toxins like mercury found in some types of fish.
  • For pregnant and nursing women, or women who plan to get pregnant, we recommend that you eat no more than 6 ounces of fish a week.
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) comes mainly from plant sources and turns into omega-3 fatty acids in the body. ALA may also help to lower the risk of heart disease.
  • Plant sterols and stanols (phytosterols) help lower LDL cholesterol. Tub, liquid, or squeeze margarine products; some cheeses; and fruit juices are available with these beneficial compounds.
  • Omega-3 supplements and other products may not be appropriate or necessary for you, depending upon your current health and risk for heart disease.
  • Some people may be at high risk for bleeding with large doses of fish oil supplements. Discuss whether or not they are recommended for you with your health care team before you start to use them.
How do I find foods that will help protect my heart?

Read food labels carefully. Compare the nutrition information of similar food products when you shop. Foods with less than 3 grams of fat in a serving are low-fat. They may be heart-healthy options. To avoid foods that contain trans fats, choose foods without any partially hydrogenated oils or shortening listed on the label. For example, many types of tub or squeeze margarines are better choices than stick margarines, which have trans fat.

Choose healthy fats in moderation:

Monounsaturated fats

Polyunsaturated fats

Omega-3 fats*

  • Olives and olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Peanuts and peanut oil
  • Peanut butter
  • Avocados
  • Almonds
  • Pecans
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Cashews
  • Hazelnuts
  • Pistachio nuts
  • Safflower oil
  • Corn oil
  • Walnuts
  • Soybeans
  • Sunflower oil and seeds
  • Sesame oil and seeds
  • Oils made from seeds
  • Brazil nuts (about equal amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fats)
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Mackerel (Pacific or Jack)
  • Herring
  • Tuna (canned light)
  • Tuna (Albacore)
  • Pollack
  • Trout
  • Soybean oil
  • Walnuts
  • Walnut oil
  • Ground flaxseeds
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Canola oil

*Fish listed tend to have lower amounts of mercury.

Avoid harmful fats:

Saturated fats

Trans fats

  • Pastries, pies, and bakery items
  • Palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil
  • Heavily marbled meats
  • Meats high in fat, such as sausage, cold cuts, hot dogs, bacon
  • Chicken fat and skin
  • Butter and dairy products with whole milk, such as cheese, cream, whole milk, and ice cream

Processed foods including:

  • Chips
  • Cookies, pastries
  • Fried foods
  • Fast food
  • Crackers
  • Stick margarine
  • Regular shortening

Cholesterol - Keep it Down

Cholesterol is needed for your body's hormone and vitamin production and to support brain function. But too much cholesterol can build up on the artery walls. Eventually, the buildup of cholesterol in the arteries can block blood flow to your heart or brain, which could cause you to have a heart attack or stroke.

Cholesterol in your diet comes mainly from animal sources. Foods such as egg yolks, beef, poultry, shellfish, milk, and dairy products all contain cholesterol. Foods from plants don't have any. To keep the amount of cholesterol you eat to a minimum:

  • Eat no more than 6 ounces of lean meat, fish, and poultry a day.
  • Limit yourself to no more than 2 egg yolks a week. There is no limit to the amount of egg whites you can eat.
  • Use low-fat and fat-free dairy products.
  • Vegetable sources of protein, such as beans, are good substitutes for animal protein.

Limit Your Salt Intake

The average person consumes too much sodium (or salt) in his or her diet. Too much salt in your diet can cause your body to hold on to too much fluid. Your heart will have to work harder to get rid of the extra fluid, leading to high blood pressure. Limit sodium to about 2000 mg a day.

Limit the amount of salt in your diet by not adding salt at the table and eating fewer processed and packaged foods. Salt is found mostly in snack foods, olives, pickles, lunch meats, cheese, fast food, and restaurant meals. Try flavoring your food with seasonings other than salt. When eating canned or packaged foods, read the food labels.

Drink a Little

We know that small amounts of alcohol may prevent cholesterol from collecting in the arteries. We also know that small servings of alcohol may reduce the risk of heart disease in some people. However, if you do not drink now, there is no reason to start.

Limiting alcohol intake to half of a drink, such as a half glass of wine with a meal, is probably the best way to benefit from alcohol.

Drinking too much alcohol can affect your heart. It can raise your blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglyceride levels. Alcohol also can weaken and enlarge your heart, causing heart failure.

Alcohol intake is not recommended at all for women who are pregnant or considering pregnancy, as it can damage the health of your baby.

If you have an emergency medical condition, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. An emergency medical condition is any of the following:
(1) a medical condition that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that you could reasonably expect the absence of immediate medical attention to result in serious jeopardy to your health or body functions or organs; (2) active labor when there isn't enough time for safe transfer to a Plan hospital (or designated hospital) before delivery, or if transfer poses a threat to your (or your unborn child's) health and safety, or (3) a mental disorder that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity such that either you are an immediate danger to yourself or others, or you are not immediately able to provide for, or use, food, shelter, or clothing, due to the mental disorder.

This information is not intended to diagnose health problems or to take the place of specific medical advice or care you receive from your physician or other health care professional. If you have persistent health problems, or if you have additional questions, please consult with your doctor. If you have questions or need more information about your medication, please speak to your pharmacist. Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the medications or products mentioned. Any trade names listed are for easy identification only.