Heart-healthy eating

February is American Heart Month. During the month of February, Optum Medical Network will post weekly articles on keeping your heart healthy.

Food For the Heart

Heart-healthy eating involves more than slashing fat and cholesterol. Learn what foods may help keep you healthy.

Eating well is an excellent way to help protect your heart. More than one third of Americans have either cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, or both. Having a healthy diet and lifestyle helps reduce the chance of developing those deadly diseases.

It’s important to eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods. Guidelines for heart health encourage people to eat a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and includes low-fat dairy, poultry, fish, legumes, nontropical vegetable oils and nuts. Experts also recommend that people limit sodium, sweets, sugary beverages and red meats.

Here are some suggestions for putting these recommendations into practice:

Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fiber

  • 1. Aim to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables.
  • 2. Color is a good — dark green, red and orange vegetables are especially nutritious.
  • 3. Your vegetables can be raw or cooked; fresh, frozen, canned or dried; whole, cut-up or mashed.
  • 4. Your fruits can be fresh, canned, frozen or dried; whole, cut-up or pureed.
  • 5. Don’t forget beans and peas which have fiber and protein. They can be dry, canned or frozen.
  • 6. Make at least half your grains whole for more fiber and nutrients. Eat less refined grains.

Lean meats, poultry, fish, dairy

  • 1. With poultry, choose light meat over dark meat. Light meat is leaner. Either way, don’t forget to take off the skin.
  • 2. Pick “choice” or “select” grades of beef. Buy “round” or “loin” cuts of beef or pork. Cut off the visible fat before eating.
  • 3. Eat fish or shellfish at least twice a week. Salmon, trout, oysters and herring are good choices because they are high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and lower in mercury. (Note: pregnant women are advised to eat 8 to 12 ounces of seafood each week. Avoid tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel, which are high in mercury. White albacore tuna has less mercury, but pregnant women should limit it to 6 ounces per week.)
  • 4. Use fat-free or low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt.

Oils and healthy fats

  • 1. Limit your intake of saturated fats. Experts recommend people aim for an eating pattern where 5 percent to 6 percent of calories come from saturated fats. Saturated fats are in red meat, bacon, poultry skin, butter and high-fat dairy.
  • 2. Lower the percentage of calories that you get from saturated fats. You may replace the saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats and carbohydrates (preferably whole grains instead of refined carbohydrates). Polyunsaturated fats are in soybean and corn oils, salmon, trout and flaxseed. Avocados, nuts, olive and canola oil are good sources of monounsaturated fats.
  • 3. Lower the percentage of calories that you get from trans fats. Trans fats can be synethic or natural. Synthetic trans fats are found in partially hydrogenated oils used in some margarines, snack foods and prepared desserts. Natural trans fats are found in meat and milk products.

Eating plans like the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) dietary pattern, the American Heart Association diet or the U.S. Department of Agriculture food pattern all fit the bill. The USDA food pattern offers options for people who are lacto-ovo vegetarian or vegan.

Conversely, cut back on foods that don’t offer much nutrition or may increase the risk of developing certain chronic conditions. Experts advise watching your intake of:

  • 1. Added sugar Most of the sugar in typical American diets are added during processing, preparation or at the table. They help preserve the food or make it taste better. But they also add calories with little nutritional value or fiber
  • 2. Sodium. Most Americans consume more sodium than they need. Sodium is added mainly during the preparation, preservation of foods or at the table. Current dietary guidelines call for Americans to consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium daily. People who are over age of 50, or are African American or have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease shguld aim for 1,500 mg of sodium a day.
  • 3. Solid fats. Most fats with a high percentage of saturated fat or trans fat are solid at room temperature. That’s why they’re called “solid fats.” These include butter, lard, stick margarine and shortening. They add a lot of calories to the diet.
  • 4. Alcohol. If you choose to drink, do so in moderation. That means up to a drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. Some people should not use alcohol at all. Talk with your doctor if you have questions about alcohol use — or have difficulty drinking in moderation.

By John Welsh, Contributing Writer


  • 1. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010. Accessed: 12/10/2014
  • 2. Eckel JM, Jakicic JD, Ard VS, et al. 2013 AHA/ACC Guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: a report of the Amreican College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association task force on practice guidelines. Circulation. Accessed: 12/10/2014
  • 3. ChooseMyPlate.gov. Healthy eating tips. Accessed: 12/10/2014

The information provided is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. You should consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs and to determine whether making a lifestyle change or decision based on this information is appropriate for you. Some treatments mentioned may not be covered by your health plan. Please refer to your benefit plan documents for information about coverage.

Copyright © 2015 myOptumHealth