Heart Healthy Eating

HealthLinkBC File Number: 
Last Updated: 
January 2015

How can heart healthy eating help prevent heart disease?

What you eat is important to the health of your heart. The foods you choose to eat can help prevent and manage high blood pressure, cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood sugar (glucose) levels. These conditions increase your risk of heart disease, especially if you have more than one.

Healthy eating, reaching and maintaining your ideal body weight, being physically active and not smoking are the best lifestyle approaches you can take to prevent heart disease.

Eating more foods that protect heart health - fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats - and less foods that are harmful to heart health will have a greater benefit than simply avoiding a few foods. The combination of heart healthy foods helps to prevent the build up of fatty deposits in your arteries and blood vessels, allowing blood to flow freely to your heart.

What foods do I need to eat more of?

Plant foods include vegetables and fruit, whole grains, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), nuts, and seeds. These foods have vitamins and minerals, fibre, and naturally occurring phytochemicals that will help keep your heart healthy.

Eat 7 to 10 servings of vegetables and fruit every day. Choose from a wide variety of types and colours, including bananas, berries, broccoli, carrots, kale, oranges, spinach, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes. Choose whole fruit over fruit juice. One serving is ½ cup of fresh or frozen vegetables, 1 cup of leafy greens, or 1 medium piece of fruit.

To help increase your intake of vegetables and fruit:

  • include a fruit or vegetable at breakfast;
  • plan for at least 2 servings of vegetables or fruit at both lunch and dinner; and
  • add extra vegetables to pasta, salads, sandwiches, sauces, soups, stews, and stir-fries.

Eat 3 or more servings of whole grains each day. Whole grains include:

  • bread products made with whole grain whole wheat flour or other whole grain flours;
  • whole grain wheat, rye, spelt, kamut, barley, oats, and bulgur;
  • brown and wild rice; and
  • buckwheat, triticale, millet, and quinoa.

A serving of grains is 1 slice of bread, half of a bagel, half of a tortilla, or ½ cup of cooked barley, bulgur, rice.

For more information about serving sizes visit Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide at www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/index-eng.php.

Eat 4 to 5 servings of nuts or seeds each week. Nuts and seeds contain heart healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that help to keep your heart healthy. A serving of nuts or seeds is 60 mL (1/4 cup).

Eat plant-based liquid oils instead of animal-based fats and tropical oils. Consuming unsaturated fats from liquid vegetable oils is considered to be more beneficial to heart health than consuming saturated fats from animal-based fats (e.g. butter, ghee, lard) and tropical oils (e.g. coconut and palm oil).

Liquid vegetable oils have different flavours and culinary functions, but all of them can improve blood cholesterol levels. Use a variety of oils to prepare foods, including extra virgin olive, soybean, and canola oils, as well as non-hydrogenated margarines made from these oils.

Omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated fats found in fish and some plant foods. The types of omega-3 fats in fish are different from those found in plant foods. All types of omega-3 fats are healthy for your heart, but the fats in fish are the most beneficial.

Try to eat at least 2 servings of fish a week. Choose fatty fish, such as herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines or trout. These fish contain higher amounts of omega-3 fats. One serving is 75 grams (2 ½ ounces).

Try to eat more plant sources of omega-3 fats. Plant sources of omega-3 fats include chia and hemp seeds, ground flax seeds, walnuts, soybeans, tofu, and canola oil. Use these foods to add variety to your meals and snacks by sprinkling walnuts or seeds on salad, cereal, and yogurt, and by using tofu instead of meat in meat-based soups, stir-fries, and sauces.

What foods do I need to limit or avoid?

Foods high in trans and saturated fats

Eating foods high in trans and saturated fats can increase your risk of heart disease. Foods typically high in trans fat include shortening, hard margarine, deep fried foods, and store-bought frozen pizzas, pie crusts, cookies, cakes, and crackers. Foods high in saturated fat are largely animal based and include foods such as red meat, processed meat, cheese, ice cream, cream, and whole milk.

To reduce your consumption of foods high in trans and saturated fats:

  • Look at the total number of grams of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts table on prepackaged foods. Choose foods that list “0” (zero) grams of trans fat.
  • Replace meat-based meals with fish or legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils.
  • Take the skin off chicken, turkey, and other poultry before cooking.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat, such as round, rump, and tenderloin. Trim any visible fat.
  • Use lower fat milk, yogurt, and cheese.
  • Choose grilled, steamed, or baked foods instead of deep fried foods when eating out.

For more information on dietary fats see HealthLinkBC File #68f Dietary Fats and Your Health.

Refined grains and grain products

Limit low-fibre breakfast cereals, white rice, and breads, snack foods, and baked goods made with white all-purpose flour, enriched flour, or wheat flour. The refined grains in these foods contain less of the healthful components found in whole grains, including fibre, minerals, and phytochemicals.

Sugary drinks

Sugary drinks contain added sugars that provide calories but little or no nutrition and often take the place of healthier choices like water or milk. Sugary drinks include pop, energy drinks, fruit drinks, sport drinks, slushes, vitamin waters, and specialty coffee and tea drinks.

The calories in sugary drinks can lead to weight gain. Having excess weight affects your body’s ability to regulate blood pressure, blood fats, and blood sugars, significantly increasing your risk of heart disease.

Foods high in sodium

Everyone needs some sodium, but too much can raise blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease. Most adults need only 1500mg of sodium each day. To lower sodium in your diet:

  • Eat fewer packaged, ready- to-eat and take out foods.
  • Limit processed meats, including deli meats, bacon, sausages, hot dogs, and pepperoni.
  • Prepare your own meals using low or no sodium-added ingredients, such as herbs and spices.
  • Use the % Daily Value (%DV) on the Nutrition Facts Table to compare products. Choose foods with 15% DV or less for sodium.

For more ideas about ways to lower your sodium, see HealthLinkBC File #68b Lifestyle Steps to Lower Your High Blood Pressure.

What can I do to maintain a healthy weight?

Maintaining a healthy weight can lower your risk of heart disease and improve heart health.

To help you reach and maintain a healthy body weight:

  • Follow the recommendations in Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide around the number and size of servings you need from each food group.
  • Use smaller plates (9 to10 inches in diameter), bowls, and glasses to help control portion sizes.
  • Fill half your plate with vegetables at lunch and dinner.
  • Be physically active every day.

For More Information

For more nutrition information, visit Healthy Eating at www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthyeating/ or call 8-1-1 to speak with a registered dietitian.

Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately.
If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.

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