Your heart needs, and deserves, special treatment — and that means eating a heart healthy diet.
In fact, nutrition plays such a tremendous part in cardiovascular health people who are at risk for heart disease should “attempt diet shifts first, before drugs,” says Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, a dietitian and adjunct professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.
Heart-Healthy Diet: The Link to Cardiovascular Health
It is really quite simple. What you eat affects your heart. When your body digests what you eat, it takes what it wants, and tries to get rid of what it does not. If you eat too much of what your body doesn’t want, it remains in your body, travels through the blood, and starts clogging up blood vessels.
What clogs your blood vessels is called plaque, a gooey substance that will stick to your artery walls. As this plaque — made up of cholesterol and other wastes — sticks to the artery walls, it makes the artery smaller, slowing the flow of blood, which carries oxygen, into the heart, brain, and other vital organs.
Arteries that are clogged by plaque often grow blood clots. A clot in an artery leading to your heart can cause a heart attack; if the clot obstructs an artery leading to your brain, it can cause a stroke. Thus, to avoid this situation, you have to eat a heart healthy diet of foods that are low in the kind of cholesterol that contributes to this plaque formation in your body.
Heart Healthy Diet: Types of Cholesterol
LDL cholesterol is also called the “bad” cholesterol and is among the primary cholesterol culprits in plaque formation. Besides LDL cholesterol, there’s additionally HDL cholesterol. The polar opposite of LDL, HDL cholesterol helps remove the plaque and allows the blood to flow. “HDL cholesterol appears to clear out the arteries,” Young says.
The heart-healthy diet target: Construct a diet that leads to lower LDL cholesterol and higher HDL cholesterol by minimizing saturated and trans fats while including the healthful unsaturated types of fat. The Mediterranean diet does all of this.
Heart Healthy Diet: Go Mediterranean
A heart healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet improves your cardiovascular health in many ways, from helping keep you cut, thereby reducing strain in your heart and arteries, to keeping cholesterol down and preventing it from obstructing those arteries.
“The Mediterranean diet is good for your lipid profile,” says Young. Your lipid profile, determined with a blood test at your physician’s office, compares your total cholesterol with the levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, another kind of fat.
The Mediterranean diet focuses on “quality” fats, like olive oil, oily fish, and nuts. Foods high in saturated fat, like red meat, on the other hand, are infrequently consumed. “Focus on lean animal proteins, and heavy plant-based proteins like beans and legumes,” Young says.
Heart-Healthy Diet: Weight Loss and Heart Disease
The quality of your diet additionally affects weight gain or decrease, and your weight in turn changes your risk for heart disease in several manners:
- People who are overweight tend to have higher amounts of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Being overweight is related to elevated blood pressure. High blood pressure puts strain on the heart and increases your risk for chest pains, heart attack, and congestive heart failure.
- Two out of three individuals with type 2 diabetes die of either heart disease or stroke, and weight gain gets you at higher risk for type 2 diabetes.
- The bottom line: Eat a heart-healthy diet and keep your heart going strong.