Five tips for eating your way to a healthier heart

By Jessica Brisson, PA-C, Salem Health Specialty Clinic – Cardiology

Believe it or not, what you eat can have a profound effect on your heart health at all stages of life. Whether you are already living with heart disease or are focused on prevention, following these straightforward tips could make all the difference.

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A plate full of colorful fruits and vegetables can help lower your risk of many serious and chronic health conditions, including heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and some types of cancer.

Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables has many advantages for better nutrition, because they are:

  • Typically free of trans fat, saturated fat, and sodium.
  • Low in calories. They fill you up thanks to the fiber and water they contain, which can help manage your weight.
  • Some of the most versatile, convenient, and affordable foods you can eat. Whether you choose fresh, frozen or canned, look for options with little or no added salt or sugar.

Plan your meals

Having a plan can help you achieve health goals such as improving blood pressure and cholesterol and lowering your risk of stroke and heart attack.

But if your health isn’t reason enough, consider that having a week’s worth of meals mapped out ahead of time can also save money by streamlining your shopping list and making you less likely to resort to unhealthy fast food or takeout options.

Follow these four tips to make meal planning work for you:

  1. Balance: Try combining similar portion sizes of several different foods to get a variety of nutrients. For example, a portion of protein for iron, some dairy for calcium, and the rest of the plate for vegetables and fruit.
  2. Calorie (energy) control: Choose foods that are heavy in nutrients (fruits and vegetables) rather than dense in energy (fat and sugar).
  3. Moderation: Only eat foods high in fat and sugar occasionally, as these foods tend to be linked to worse cardiovascular health when eaten in excess. You don’t need to eliminate these foods entirely, just enjoy them sparingly.
  4. Variety: Different foods in the same group contain different nutrients, so changing it up — for example, a side of lentils one day and a side of brown rice or beans on another day — helps make sure you’re getting lots of different vitamins and minerals. Plus, more variety means you’re less likely to get bored and head to the drive-thru.

Choose the right recipes

Food has the power to lower both your cholesterol and blood pressure. Certain foods can also help decrease inflammation. Many experts recommend what is known as a Mediterranean diet. This diet is high in vitamins, minerals, fiber and healthy fats. Try including more:

  • Beans or legumes, such as lentils; black-eyed peas; kidney, pinto or black beans; or chick peas, which are high in fiber, protein, and B-vitamins
  • Green leafy vegetables like kale, Swiss chard, collared and mustard greens, and bok choy. They contain high levels of fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium and calcium and are easy to sneak into soups, salads and sandwiches.
  • Fish, especially naturally oily fish that are high in omega-3 acids. Try swapping out meat and poultry for salmon, canned tuna, catfish, mackerel, pollock or trout. Omega-3 is proven to lower your risk of heart failure, heart disease, stroke or sudden cardiac death.

Watch your serving sizes

You should ensure you are getting about four servings of fruit per day and five servings of vegetables per day. Serving sizes are different for each food, but in general, the higher the fat or sugar content, the smaller the serving.

One serving of fruit is one whole apple or orange, or a handful of berries, or a quarter-cup of juice. With vegetables, a serving may be half a bell pepper, a large scoop of broccoli or half of a large potato.

If you struggle with serving sizes, charts listing serving sizes for thousands of foods are readily available online or in nutrition books. Or try a meal-tracking app on your smart phone for a convenient guide to servings and portions.

Store food safely

Storing food appropriately saves you money by reducing waste. It also protects you from a lot of unpleasant foodborne illnesses.

Generally your refrigerator should be set to 40 degrees F or lower.

Store vegetables and fruits separately — you can find guides online to help you know which foods prefer a cool, dry place like your pantry, and which are better off on the countertop or in the vegetable crisper.

Keep apples, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, onions, pears, potatoes and watermelon away from other produce, as they can affect how quickly other items ripen and rot.

Always refrigerate cut or peeled produce.

Ask for help

In the end, the most important part of eating for heart health is finding something that fits into your life. That way, you’re a lot more likely to stick with the plan. If making changes seems overwhelming or impossible, talk to your doctor or make an appointment with a registered dietitian for advice that’s personalized to your needs.

If you’re interested in more simple, health-improving changes you can make to your routine, Salem Health’s Community Health Education Center is here to help with classes, support groups and educational materials. Call 503-814-2432 or visit

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