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Eat better to help your heart

You don't need to change your whole diet overnight. Making small changes over time can make a big difference.

You know it. Your doctor has mentioned it. And your family is bugging you to take action. You need to eat better to help protect your heart.

Research shows that healthful eating can help control high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and excess body weight—all risks for heart disease.

But how do you start? After all, it isn't easy to change the way you eat after a lifetime of not worrying much about it.

First, take a deep breath, advises Nieca Goldberg, MD, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association (AHA).

"Don't think that you need to make all these changes all at once," she says. "That's too overwhelming."

Instead, "take it one step at a time," she says. "Try to make adjustments in your diet gradually. Take a look at how you eat, and think about what you can change."

For example, "If you drink soda, which contributes to obesity, try cutting back or switch to drinking water instead," Dr. Goldberg suggests.

"Or, instead of grabbing a doughnut for your mid-morning snack, choose something healthier, like an apple or cut-up veggies," she adds.

Take small steps such as these gradually and stick to them. In time, they can bring you a long way toward improving your health.

The basics

The following tips can all help improve your heart health. Remember, you don't have to make all these changes at once. Pick a few to start with and add more over time.

Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These items are packed with important vitamins and nutrients but are low in calories, according to the AHA. They also contain fiber, which can help lower your blood cholesterol and make you feel more full, helping you manage your weight.

Think lean. Choose lean meats and poultry without skin. Remove all visible fat before cooking. Grill, bake or broil meats and poultry instead of frying. Also, cut back on fatty, salty, processed meats.

Go fish. Studies show that omega-3 fatty acids in fish help protect against heart problems. Good sources include fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. Eat at least two servings of fish weekly, advises the AHA.

Trim fat. Gradually switch to fat-free, low-fat or reduced-fat dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese.

Skip the salt. Food that is high in salt boosts your risk for high blood pressure. Refrain from adding it while cooking or at the table. Season foods with herbs or spices instead.

Reduce sugar. Sugary drinks and desserts aren't nutritious and can put you at risk for weight gain.

Change your oils. Choose liquid vegetable oils, such as canola and olive oils, over solid fats like butter and shortening. A little goes a long way—use just enough for cooking.

Remember to exercise. Along with eating better, exercising regularly will help you manage your weight. Your doctor can help you develop a safe and healthy exercise plan.

Learn more

For more about heart-healthy eating and some heart-healthy recipes, visit the AHA's Healthy Eating website.

Reviewed 8/1/2022

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