Nutrition’s Impact on Heart Health

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by Jeannie Versagli, RDN, CN

Heart disease often goes undetected for some years before signs and symptoms present themselves.  The number one cause of death in America is due to heart disease; this equals approximately 92 million people in the US.

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Poor nutrition has been identified as a contributing factor in developing heart disease, along with an individual’s age, sex, family history, smoking, and stress. Individuals can influence their heart health in a positive way through developing healthy eating patterns, maintaining a healthy weight, and incorporating physical activity into their daily routine.

In my many years of counseling my clients, it never fails that individuals who suffer from cardiac disease consume a diet high in saturated fats, carbohydrates, salt, and calories. Much time and effort is spent on learning how to change lifestyles, along with learning how to adjust their dietary intake to provide the balance of nutrients needed to positively influence a healthy heart. So, you should be asking yourself, what ratio and specific nutrients are necessary to have a healthy heart?

The Mediterranean Diet prescribes many heart-healthy foods.

Current research indicates that the Mediterranean diet and US Dietary Guidelines provide the best program to ensure one has a healthy heart.  These recommendations require consuming good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, lean proteins, seafood (to include cold water fish), legumes, fruits (especially berries), nuts, extra virgin olive oil, low-fat dairy, and wine in moderation.

The Mediterranean diet omits high amounts of saturated fat and trans-fats, which raise lipid levels and increase inflammation in the body. My goal is to limit inflammation while decreasing the bad fats in one’s diet. The Dietary Guidelines for 2015-2020 recommend keeping saturated fats to less than 10% of your total calories for the day.

Healthy Fats

This list of healthy fats is what I encourage my clients to incorporate into their daily menu.

Avocados are a great source of monounsaturated fats.

Monounsaturated Fats

  • Vegetable oils to include olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil, and sesame oil
  • Olives
  • Avocados
  • Nut butters and nuts (almonds, macadamia pecans)
Salmon is a good source of polyunsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated Fats


  • Vegetable oils to include soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil
  • Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and trout
  • Nuts and seeds, such as walnuts and sunflowers seeds

Incorporating Fiber into Your Diet

Along with eating mono and polyunsaturated fats, incorporating soluble fiber foods into your diet is an excellent way to decrease LDL cholesterol in the blood.  Adding fiber-rich foods to your meals allows the fiber to absorb the LDL cholesterol, making it not available for absorption. The cholesterol fiber is carried through the digestive tract in the bowel and is excreted.

Foods containing good sources of soluble fibers are oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus, carrots, avocados, barley, flaxseed, and psyllium. It is always best to get your soluble fiber through the foods you eat, but if you struggle with increasing your fiber consumption, I recommend a psyllium fiber supplement 15 to 30 minutes prior to eating a meal.

Fiber can be one’s friend or foe.  Increasing fiber to your daily meal plan too quickly can cause GI distress in the form of gas, constipation, or diarrhea.  It is best to follow the manufacturer recommendations on how to take fiber supplements to alleviate side effects.  It is also important to consume adequate fluids to avoid constipation while using a fiber supplement. It is recommended to consume a minimum of 64 ounces daily.

Making Healthy Choices

Eating for a healthy heart requires individuals to avoid fast food and improve upon poor eating habits. Often their food choices are high in saturated fats, simple carbohydrates, and contain low-density nutrient calories. 

Research indicates that individuals can potentially lower cholesterol levels by 20% through proper nutrition and lifestyle changes. Learning how to combine complex carbohydrates, lean proteins (to include tuna, salmon, mackerel and trout), fresh fruits and vegetables (including a variety of colors), omega-3 fatty acids, and high-fiber foods give individuals the ability to positively impact their heart health.

Photo by Ted Eytan; license

The American Heart Association has developed a tool to aid in helping consumers identify heart-healthy food items while grocery shopping.  Their Heart-Check Program identifies foods that align with the American Heart Association’s nutritional guidelines, making it easy to spot heart-healthy foods when shopping. The symbol is a red heart with a white check mark through the heart. These foods are low in saturated fats and sodium and provide 10% or more of the daily value of Vitamin A, C, calcium, iron, fiber and protein.

Take charge of your heart’s health today — follow the Mediterranean diet and begin living an active lifestyle exercising (60 minutes a day). When put into practice, your heart will thank you.


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