Heart Healthy Diet

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and a problem the world over. On the plus side, most people are aware of the dangers of heart disease. But knowing the risk hasn't put a dent in the number of patients being rushed to the emergency room for quadruple bypass surgery, as lifestyles become increasingly sedentary and fast food diets grow ever more common.

However, simply by reading this article, you're arming yourself with the information you need to eat a heart healthy diet. According to doctors and dieticians, there are a few simple gastronomic principles you can follow to maximize your heart health and minimize your chances of coronary trouble.

Avoid Processed Foods

Want to clog your arteries, increase your risk of diabetes, bolster your calorie intake and gain lots of weight in addition to maximizing your chances of a heart attack? Then eat lots of processed foods like potato chips, cookies, cupcakes, and, well, you get the idea. The more the better! Soon you will be packing on the pounds, showing off your cellulite, and travelling the high speed express to coronary catastrophe! In other words, avoid highly processed foods.

Eat More Plant Foods

That's "plant foods," not "plant food," which you should most emphatically avoid. By plant foods I'm referring to vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes. These foods, especially in their whole, unprocessed state, boast a treasure chest of nutrients, phytonutrients, antioxidants and fiber.

And the closer the food is to its natural state, the richer the bounty. For example, raw vegetables fresh from the farm are the best for you, with lightly steamed or sautéed veggies coming next, and heavily cooked or canned produce bringing up the rear.

Stay Away from (Some) Fats

What do you know? Turns out that eating fat doesn't automatically grease the rails on the heart disease express. Some fats are actually good for you, and others are fine consumed in moderation. But ... saturated and trans fats are indeed the bugaboos 20th century medicine made them out to be. Many dieticians recommend completely cutting red meat from the diet simply because it is so heavy in saturated fat, which is a leading culprit in clogged arteries and heart disease.

But trans fat is in a league of its on the awful scale. Trans fats are the only class of fatty acids that both increase LDL ("bad") cholesterol and decrease HDL ("good) cholesterol. A recent study by Harvard Medical School found that the 25% of participants with the highest trans fat consumption had a 300% greater risk of developing heart disease as compared to the 25% of participants who ate the lowest levels of trans fats. Aside from an increased risk of heart disease, trans fats also contribute to a greater risk of stroke and high blood pressure, and should be avoided as much as possible.

Overall, you should get no more than 25-30% of your total daily calories from fat, and saturated fats should provide no more than 7-10% of your total caloric intake.

The Great Wine and Alcohol "Maybe"

Red wine is good for you and your heart! So say many recent studies. Are they accurate? Consumed in moderation--meaning no more than two glasses of wine, two cans of beer or 3 ounces of 80 proof liquor daily-- alcohol appears to be good for your heart. It reduces clotting or thickening of blood and increases your good cholesterol levels, while diminishing C-reactive protein, which can contribute to inflamed arteries and heart disease.

And red wine really does have the most benefits of any type of alcohol. It appears to be the anti-trans fat, as it both raises good and lowers bad cholesterol.

On the other hand, alcohol (including wine) contains a lot of calories, and too many calories lead to weight gain, and too much weight gain leads to increased risk of heart disease. And alcohol is a potential carcinogen. The ultimate verdict? Alcohol (especially red wine) is good for your heart as long as you keep it to small doses, but you want to remember that it carries a number of other health risks.

Omega-3 Is Key

Americans simply don't get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet, either taken alone or in proportion to omega 6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids help maintain your heart when it is healthy, and improve its function if it is ill. They decrease the risk of arrhythmia, help prevent clogged arteries, and lower blood pressure.

Dozens of studies published in reputable medical journals including the Lancet, the JAMA, and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition have shown that increasing omega-3 consumption--whether through fish oil supplementation or through diet--leads to a significant decrease in heart attack risk and severity of attacks when they do happen. These findings hold true for both the general population and heart patients. Studies have also shown that omega-3 fatty acids help improve circulation for diabetics and individuals suffering from clogged arteries, increasing the vitality and decreasing the risk of heart attack for both of these populations.

Fish is one of the best sources for omega-3 fatty acids. While some species, such as swordfish and shark, are sufficiently high in mercury content that children and pregnant women are cautioned not to eat them, there are a number of readily available species high in omega-3 fatty acids but low in mercury, including salmon, light tuna, catfish, and pollock.

Flax seeds and flax seed oil are by far the best vegetarian sources, both for quantity of omega-3 fatty acids and their ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Both types of fatty acids are essential to optimal human function, but they need to be in balance, and most Americans have a diet ridiculously out of balance in favor of omega-6 EFAs. Aim for an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio between 1:1 and 1:4.

As research also demonstrates a key role for omega-3 fatty acids in everything from mental function to cancer prevention and immune health, you'll be doing more than your heart a favor by eating more foods rich in omega-3 EFAs.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

As a final note, no matter what you eat, keep your eating habits in check. A study of 30,000 men found that slightly overweight men had a 72% higher incidence of heart disease as compared to men who were considered lean. However, being a little overweight is much better for your heart than being a lot overweight. The same study found that obese men had a 244% greater risk of heart disease as compared to men in the healthiest categories. While this study included only male participants, other studies have shown similar results for women.

Eat healthy with emphasis on plant foods and omega-3 fatty acids and eat in moderation, and you'll greatly improve your chances for a long, healthy life.