When did healthy eating become so hard? There are so many food lists, “good” and “bad” items, and almost prescription-like precision to follow. Healthy eating—especially for your heart—doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, by learning a few fundamentals, you’ll have a healthy diet not only for your heart, but your brain, digestive system, immune system and more.
Remember that healthy eating is a marathon, not a sprint. So, you’ll reap the benefits by taking the first big step: making this a life-long commitment. Your patterns of eating over time—not daily—are what counts most. And it takes a lot of pressure off being the “perfect” eater.
In honor of Heart Health Awareness Month, take a look at these six tips that are worth incorporating into your daily routine. After all, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, killing 301,280 women in 2019 – or about one in every five female deaths. No long food lists, or biology lessons. Nothing to memorize—just a commitment to mindful eating.
And recognize that food is not medicine—it can support a healthy body along with regular medical check-ups. Your doctor will applaud your healthy lifestyle, but preventive medical care is of equal importance.
1. Limit animal fats
It’s not the amount of fat in your diet that’s a culprit for heart health—it’s the type of fat.
The biggest source of saturated (artery clogging) fats comes from animal products of all kinds so you’ll want to keep that as low as you can—that’s about 12 grams a day if you’re eating a 2,000 calorie diet.
If you’re a red meat lover, look for “round” or “sirloin” cuts, and skip the cuts with visible fat (marbled). Stick with reduced or non-fat dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt. And remove the skin from poultry.
Try swapping plant oils for butter in cooking and baking. Only tropical oils—like palm and coconut oil—are off limits as plant fats because they are mostly saturated fat.
2. Limit packaged and processed foods
A good rule of thumb is to follow the motto “if it’s grown, eat it.” Simply prepared fresh food is always the way to go, and the convenience of packaged and processed foods is appealing. But read the labels to make the better choice when you use them.
More than 75 percent of salt consumed is from boxed, bagged and processed foods. And loads of hidden sugars and fats often ride along with some basically healthy foods.
The only solution to making smart choices when it comes to packaged and processed foods is to read nutrition labels carefully. Look for the percentage of daily recommended intake for the best idea of what you’re eating. For example, if a saturated fat amount is listed as 70 percent of your daily recommendation, it’s a red flag to limit or avoid that food.
And remember that packaged and processed foods are also the major source of trans fats—another artery-clogging fat you want to avoid. That’s an easy one to spot because the nutrition label indicates how much is there.
3. Choose any kind of fruit or vegetable
Creating a colorful plate adds nutrient-rich phytochemicals—with the color coming from different combinations of these antioxidants. Produce of all kinds provides a huge value-add to the vitamins, minerals, water, and fiber found in fruits and vegetables.
If calories are of concern, focus more on vegetables that lack the natural sugars found in fruits.
Remember that frozen or canned fruits and vegetables (without added sugars or salt) are an economical option for out of season produce--and they’re often more flavorful.
Your first goal is to eat one more serving than you do now! Aim for five servings a day.
4. Focus on fiber from foods
Nature provides two kinds of fiber in foods to meet the needs of a healthy digestive tract: soluble and insoluble. While soluble fiber helps to keep LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol in check, insoluble fiber serves as a natural colon cleanser.
While produce is a great source of fiber, other parts of nature offer fiber-rich options. These are found in whole grains—those that retain all of nature’s nutrients in the outer protective layers of all grains.
Both oats and oat bran provide concentrated sources of soluble fiber, while whole wheat, rye, and rice are more familiar sources of insoluble fiber. Legumes and beans are also great sources of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
Remember to focus on foods to meet your fiber needs, not fortified bars, or supplements. While these can help boost your fiber, they should support, not replace foods.
5. Control your portion size
When it comes to food, size matters. It’s not only what you eat, but how much you eat. Even the calories from healthy foods can add up fast.
Eating for good health is a two-step process: (1) swapping unhealthy foods for healthy ones (allowing for some occasional treats along the way) and (2) downsizing portions if weight creep is occurring.
It’s hard to “eyeball” serving sizes, and most of us cannot estimate serving sizes correctly, even with practice. It’s important to keep track of the number of servings you choose, as well as the size.
Try using smaller plates and bowls, to fool your eye is “seeing” a larger portion. Stick with single serving treats to get the added pleasure of eating “the whole thing”. And when you’re looking for seconds, focus on fruits or vegetables, or some lean protein—both nutrient dense choices--to help you feel comfortably full.
And don’t let restaurant eating sabotage your efforts. Most main dish portions are enough for two people. Try splitting a main dish with your dining partner, with each ordering a salad or soup for an appetizer.
You want to aim for contentment (satisfied but you could eat more) and stop at that--not feeling stuffed.
6. Pair your eating with the right physical activity
While the right foods support a healthy heart and body, adding physical activity can strengthen your heart, and help you maintain an overall healthy body. And it’s a great stress reliever.
Moving more can help you lose weight, or just stay even—both important to a healthy heart. Your heart doesn’t have to work as hard when body weight is a healthy one.
Aim for 150 minutes a week of moderate (you’re able to walk and talk comfortably at the same time), or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (talking makes you breathless).
And if you’re meeting that already with a 30-minute daily walk, that’s great ― you’ve met your recommended goal. You can opt to keep up with that as your sole activity and stick with that daily. But that’s only one-third of the activity triad ―cardiovascular, strength and flexibility. Shift your thinking that cardio (like walking) is the start of your activity program. Think about activities you enjoy doing ― It’s the only to sustain regular activity.
Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is NBC News’ health editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.