Did you know that a heart-healthy diet can reduce the three major risk factors for heart attack—high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity? Eating healthy foods that are low in saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol and high in antioxidants and fiber also will reduce the risk for stroke.
The DASH Diet
Research has shown that a low-sodium diet can reduce systolic blood pressure (pressure when the heart contracts, indicated by the first, higher number in a blood-pressure reading) by as much as 11.5 mm Hg. The DASH Diet ("Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension") emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods and recommends limiting salt intake to about 1,500 mg per day.
Antioxidants and Your Heart
Eating foods rich in antioxidants has also been found to help protect the heart by preventing blood clots and by improving blood cholesterol levels. Antioxidants neutralize damaging free radicals, which oxidize other molecules and damage cells. They also boost immune-system function to keep diseases at bay. Foods rich in antioxidants include citrus fruits, blueberries, broccoli, grape juice, green tea, and orange juice, as well as such dark-green leafy vegetables as cabbage, kale, arugula, beet greens, bok choy, and collard greens.
Why Fiber Matters
Soluble fiber may lower blood cholesterol levels, and it’s associated with a reduced risk for heart disease and stroke. Good sources of soluble fiber include fresh fruits, oats, legumes, and vegetables. Eating enough fiber also can help you lose weight because it makes you feel full longer, so you’re less likely to overeat.
The Mediterranean Diet
People living in the Mediterranean region (Italy and Greece, for example) tend to have lower cholesterol levels and lower rates of heart disease and cancer than Americans. This is mainly because of their diet.
A Mediterranean diet emphasizes grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil, compared with the typical American diet that emphasizes fatty foods and red meat. The Mediterranean diet is high in monosaturated fat and low in saturated fat, a dietary component that women should reduce to prevent heart disease.
People in the Mediterranean region also practice healthier lifestyle choices than Americans. Most Mediterranean people walk rather than drive, exercise daily, work outside, and don’t watch a lot of television.