En español | In the fight against heart disease, the nation's number one killer, Americans already have three powerful weapons at their disposal:
The knife, the fork and the spoon.
As evidence mounts that cardiovascular disease can be prevented, managed and even reversed with changes in diet, the American Heart Association has made eating for heart health a central theme (especially during February, American Heart Month). Of the seven behaviors the AHA endorses to ward off heart disease, five are related to diet and nutrition.
For patients newly diagnosed with heart ailments, there is more proof than ever of food's role in treatment, says Rachel Johnson, who has a doctorate in nutrition. Johnson and her colleagues on the AHA's Nutrition Committee "went through a rigorous process of reviewing the scientific literature and narrowing down to those components of a heart-healthy diet that have been shown to be the most effective in terms of lowering cardiovascular risks," she said. The five diet components that the AHA experts consider most crucial:
- Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables — the equivalent of 4 1/2 cups a day, or more when possible. "That may sound like a lot," Johnson concedes, "but by eating a big salad with lots of dark green and orange vegetables, you can go a long way toward that goal."
- Eating fish. "We are saying at least two servings a week if not more, up to 3 1/2 servings a week," says Johnson. "And especially the oily fish, because that's where the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids are — fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna."
- Eating fiber-rich whole grains, at least three servings daily of about one ounce (roughly one slice of bread). Johnson says read labels "to make sure that the first ingredient listed is whole grain. What we mean is eating grain in the most unprocessed form: brown rice instead of white, whole grain pastas instead of white flour pastas."
- Reducing sodium to less than 1,500 milligrams a day. "We've got a long way to go," says Johnson, given that the average American's daily sodium intake is about 3,400 milligrams, more than 70 percent of which are so-called "hidden salts" in processed foods. Johnson says the AHA has been working closely with the food industry to lower the sodium content in processed foods.
- Reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to no more than 36 ounces a week for a total of 450 calories. "Americans are consuming way more added sugars than we should," says Johnson — not the sugars that occur naturally in foods such as milk and fruits, but those that are added in processing and preparation. "The average American consumes about 22 teaspoons a day of added sugar," she says, "and sugar-sweetened beverages are the number one source of those added sugars." The AHA recommends limiting added sugars to no more than six teaspoons a day for women and nine teaspoons a day for men — and drinking water instead of sweetened beverages.
Several of the specific steps also advance an overall AHA goal for a heart-healthy diet: helping patients achieve and maintain a healthy weight. "We know that as we age, there's that creep of a couple of pounds a year and before you know it, you're out of your healthy weight range," Johnson says. "So it's critical to achieve that appropriate energy balance, which means balancing your level of physical activity and the calories you eat."
Johnson knows that even when eating more healthfully may be a life-or-death matter, heart patients can struggle with it. "To me, the take-away message is, there's not one size that fits all," says Johnson. "The key is to find what works best for you, and make changes that you're going to be able to sustain."
To get started in the right direction, the AHA shared a week’s worth of recipes to help you eat for heart health.