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Published: February 21, 2017

apple with a heart sliced on itOf course, you want a healthy heart. One of the best things you can do to keep your heart in shape is to pay attention to what you eat and drink.   

“The role of diet is crucial in the development and prevention of cardiovascular disease. Diet is one of the key things you can change that will impact all other cardiovascular risk factors,” explains the World Heart Federation.


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Adds the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, “Combined with physical activity, your diet can help you to reach and maintain a healthy weight, reduce your risk of chronic diseases (like heart disease and cancer), and promote your overall health.”

Other Kendal blogs have focused on exercise to promote cardiovascular fitness. Let’s examine how to follow a healthy diet on a regular basis, which often can be challenging and confusing.

Start with the Basics for a Heart-Healthy Diet

The Mayo Clinic lists 8 tips for a healthy heart diet. Here are 5 of them:

  1. Control portion sizes. At home, use smaller plates and bowls, or measuring cups, spoons and a scale to learn how to visualize serving sizes. When eating out, order a to-go box when you place an order, and put half of the meal in a box as soon as it arrives.
  2. Eat more fruits and vegetables, especially fresh or frozen. Limit fried, breaded and creamy sauce vegetables and fruit canned in heavy syrup or frozen with added sugar.
  3. Select whole grains, such as brown rice and barley, high-fiber cereal, and whole-grain pasta and bread. Limit white bread, doughnuts, cakes and pies.  
  4. Eat protein, but choose low-fat, such as skim milk, skinless chicken breasts, eggs and fish.
  5. Allow yourself an occasional treat. “A candy bar or handful of potato chips won't derail your heart-healthy diet. But don't let it turn into an excuse for giving up on your healthy-eating plan. If overindulgence is the exception, rather than the rule, you'll balance things out over the long term. What's important is that you eat healthy foods most of the time,” according to Mayo Clinic Staff.

WebMD came up with 9 suggestions for eating healthy, and one-third of them have to do with “fats.”

  1. Avoid artificial “trans fats” completely. “Items that may have trans fat include commercial baked goods, snack foods (such as microwave popcorn), frozen pizza, fast food, vegetable shortenings, stick margarines, coffee creamer, refrigerated dough products (such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls) and ready-to-use frostings. Even if the label says ‘0 grams trans fat,’ they may still have a tiny bit of trans fat; so check the ingredients list on packaged foods for ‘partially hydrogenated oils.’ Those are trans fats,” according to WebMD.
  2. Limit saturated fat, found in butter, salad dressings and sweets, to no more than 7 to 10 percent of calories.
  3. When adding fat, use fats high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, such as canola, olive, and peanut oil.

Kendal at Oberlin Dietitian Sue Campbell points out that foods from local farmer’s markets are always a good choice. She and Kendal at Oberlin Chef Scott Stonestreet mentioned several heart-healthy recipes that are resident favorites.


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Reducing Sodium Helps Heart Health

No surprise that both Mayo and WedMD recommend reducing sodium in your diet. The American Heart Association explains what sodium is and how it affects our health.

“Sodium is a mineral that’s essential for life. It’s regulated in the body by your kidneys, and it helps control your body’s fluid balance. It also helps send nerve impulses and affects muscle function. When there’s extra sodium in your bloodstream, it pulls water into your blood vessels, increasing the total amount (volume) of blood inside your blood vessels. With more blood flowing through your blood vessels, blood pressure increases. It’s like turning up the water supply to a garden hose — the pressure in the hose increases as more water is blasted through it.”

Yes, table salt has sodium (and chloride), but that’s typically not why we over-consume sodium.

“About 77 percent of the sodium we consume comes from packaged, prepared and restaurant foods. The rest of the sodium in our diets occurs naturally in food (about 12 percent) or is added by us when we’re cooking food or sitting down to eat.

The latter only makes up only about 10 percent of our total sodium intake, so even if you never use the salt shaker, you’re probably getting too much sodium,” the Heart Association explains.

When eating out or grocery shopping, check nutrition information and labels and avoid or limit consumption of the “salty six:”

  • Cold cuts and cured meats;
  • Pizza;
  • Soup;
  • Bread and rolls;
  • Chicken, especially breaded nuggets;
  • Burritos and tacos.

Limit or Eliminate Alcohol for a Healthy Heart

Drinking alcoholic “spirits” in excess can also hurt the health of our heart. The American Heart Association recommends no more than one drink per day for women and two for men.

Dr. Leslie Cho, a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic, lists 4 facts to consider regarding alcohol and heart:

  • Alcohol can be dangerous for certain health conditions and medications (talk to your healthcare provider);
  • An occasional glass of red wine may be good for your heart, but avoiding alcohol is best;
  • Age plays a factor in how well you tolerate alcohol. ““As we get older, our ability to clear alcohol definitely decreases and our sensitivity to alcohol probably increases,” Dr. Cho says. “Also as we get older, we end up having more diseases, so we could be on medicines that can interfere with the way our bodies metabolize alcohol.”
  • Overindulging can cause an irregular heartbeat.

Vitamins and Other Over-the-Counter Pills Won’t Improve Cardiac Health

There is no evidence that vitamins or supplements will improve cardiac health, and some of them, such as Vitamin E, may actually be harmful, Dr. Cho explains in this 3-minute video. She strongly recommends talking to your physician before taking vitamins, supplements or OTC medications, such as products advertised as cholesterol-lowering.  

What about taking a daily low-dose aspirin (81 milligrams)?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says a low-dose aspirin can help prevent cardiovascular disease, but recommends usage based on age and health factors:

  • Adults 50 to 59 years of age, daily dose recommended for those who have a 10 percent or greater 10-year cardiovascular risk, are not at increased risk for bleeding, have a life expectancy of at least 10 years, and are willing to take low-dose aspirin daily for at least 10 years;
  • Adults 60 to 69, individual decision, talk to physician about benefits and risks;
  • Adults 70 or older, not recommended because of insufficient evidence of benefits and risk.

Specific Diet Plans for a Healthy Heart

Less red meat and more plant-based dishes cooked in olive oil, accompanied with a glass of red wine might just be what the doctor orders for a healthy heart diet.

“Research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease. The diet has been associated with a lower level of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the ‘bad’ cholesterol that's more likely to build up deposits in your arteries.

“In fact, a meta-analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality as well as overall mortality,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Fish, whole grains, nuts and spices (not salt) are also part of a Mediterranean diet.

Some people concerned about heart health turn to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Kendal resident Carla VanDale quit eating meat in her early 50s.

“I decided, unlike my dad who died at 50 from a heart attack, I wanted to see my grandchildren,” she says. “One surefire way to do that was to change my lifestyle.”

Today, Carla and her husband, Bob, follow a vegan diet (foods from plants – fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds and nuts) after being introduced to Cleveland Clinic surgeon Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., a vegan lifestyle advocate and author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.

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Molly Kavanaugh frequently wrote about Kendal at Oberlin for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she was a reporter for 16 years.