Just in time for American Heart Month, a Mass General dietitian shares some diet advice that can help lower the risk for heart disease.
Deborah Krivitsky, MS, RD, LDN
Deborah Krivitsky, MS, RD, LDN

Just in time for American Heart Month, a new survey says Americans are confused about what it means to eat a heart-healthy diet. Armed with tips to tackle any confusion, Massachusetts General Hospital dietitian Deborah Krivitsky, MS, RD, LDN, of the Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Program in the Corrigan Minehan Heart Center, shares some diet tips that can help lower the risk for heart disease.

What makes a diet heart-healthy?

A heart-healthy diet includes healthy fats. Fish, nuts and oils – with the exception of palm and coconut oil – are great sources of heart- healthy fats. These types of fats are essential for good health, because we need fat for thermal insulation and protection and for transport of fat-soluble vitamins. They certainly make food taste good, and they help us to feel full longer. A heart-healthy diet also includes foods that are high in fiber and provide whole grains. To get the nutrients you need, try to maintain a dietary pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts, while limiting red meat and sugary foods and beverages.

What are the worst things to eat for your heart, and how can I avoid eating them?

Trans fats, salt and sugar are the top three offenders in an unhealthy heart diet.

Trans fats, salt and sugar are the top three offenders in an unhealthy heart diet. Trans fats are problematic because they simultaneously raise your “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and lower your “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Big culprits include packaged snacks, crackers, bakery goods and some margarines. Americans eat more than double the daily amount of sodium recommended by the American Heart Association. Cutting your salt intake can help lower high blood pressure and also reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke and other health problems. It’s fairly easy to keep track of sugars you add yourself. Added sugars in processed foods, however, are more difficult to track. Keeping track of how much sugar you’re swallowing is an important part of a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Why is fiber an essential component of a heart-healthy diet?

To ensure an adequate intake of fiber, include at least three fruit servings, two vegetable servings and high-fiber breads, cereals and crackers daily.

Fiber is the indigestible portion of food. It is often referred to as “nature’s broom” because it takes with it what it can along its path. There are two kinds of fiber – soluble and insoluble. Both types are equally important for health, digestion and preventing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and constipation. To ensure an adequate intake of fiber, include at least three fruit servings, two vegetable servings and high-fiber breads, cereals and crackers daily.

Which is more important to avoid, cholesterol or saturated fats?

It is difficult to separate the two, as many foods contain both cholesterol and saturated fat. That being said, limiting saturated fat intake is very important. Saturated fat that comes mainly from animal sources of food – such as red meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products – raises total blood cholesterol levels and LDL cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat may also increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. My recommendation would be to limit your intake of red meat to no more than one to two times a week.

At the Massachusetts General Hospital Corrigan Minehan Heart Center, a team of world-class physicians, nurses and other professionals work together closely to offer leading treatments and preventive care for both common and complex cardiac conditions.

This article first appeared in MGH Hotline.