What is a heart-healthy diet? Views on nutrition are changing. Fats are apparently not as bad as we thought before, sugars have contributed to worsening overall health and sodium is debated; but most experts can agree that as Canadians, we probably get too much on a daily basis from processed foods.

Eating meals rich in lean protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds will benefit your ticker, as will limiting your intake of sodium (which can increase your blood pressure) and saturated and trans fats, which can cause plaque to form in your arteries.

This being said, there is no single magic food (good or bad) that is the ticket to a heart-healthy diet; rather, the focus should be on overall healthy patterns of eating.

Here are some tips you can try:

Eat the Mediterranean way

The Mediterranean diet is an eating pattern that is followed in countries around the Mediterranean Sea including Greece, Italy and Spain. Research shows that following this pattern of eating can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. The Mediterranean diet is primarily a plant-based diet that includes:  

  • A variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, split peas)
  • Fish and seafood
  • Olive oil as the main source of fat
  • Limited amounts of red meat, high-fat poultry, sweets and processed foods
  • Using tomato, garlic, onions and leeks to flavour foods

The Mediterranean diet is simple, balanced and can be adapted to many different cultures and cuisines. Cooking at home more often and enjoying meals with friends and family are also part of a Mediterranean eating pattern.

Portion control

Portion control is one key to a healthy heart. You don’t want to overeat and feel stuffed and you also don’t want to feel unsatisfied after a meal. Including nutrient-rich whole and unprocessed foods can make your meals more nutritious, satisfying and heart-healthy. Try to limit portions of more processed and packaged foods that are often higher in sugar, sodium and saturated and trans fats.

Portion control doesn’t have to be complicated. Canada’s Food Guide plate method can help you plan balanced meals. Canada’s Food Guide recommends:

  • ½ plate of fruits and vegetables. You can choose either fresh or frozen
  • ¼ plate of whole grains. Examples of whole grains include whole-grain bread, cereals and pasta, brown rice, whole grain oats, quinoa and barley
  • ¼ plate protein. Examples include fish, chicken, lean meat, eggs, low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds, tofu, tempeh and legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils). Try to include plant proteins more often.  

Another method is to measure portions is by using your hands as an indicator for size. At each meal aim to include the following:

  • Protein: Consume a palm-size portion of protein each time you eat. Depending on your size and activity level, you may need to consume 1 to 2 servings of protein per meal
  • Carbohydrate: Consume a fist or a tennis ball size of carbs. Cooked brown rice, sweet potato and quinoa are all examples of complex carbohydrates
  • Fat: Consume a thumb of fat. A wedge of avocado or 6 to 8 almonds will do the trick
  • Vegetables/fruits: Half of your plate should be filled with fruits or vegetables

Eat more plant foods

Plant foods can be a rich source of fibre, protein, healthy fats, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. They are also low in saturated and trans fats. Including whole unprocessed foods that come from plants can help lower your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.

  • Fruits and vegetables: Choose a rainbow of fruits and veggies to incorporate into your meals. Loaded with fibre, vitamins and minerals, they help to protect against diseases as well as boost your immune system
  • Nuts and seeds: Nuts, seeds and their butters (e.g. almonds, walnuts, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts etc.) are a great source of fibre, protein and healthy fats
  • Legumes: Beans, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans and split peas are examples of legumes. Legumes are a great source of protein and soluble fibre, a type of fibre that can help lower cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Whole grains: Choose bread, cereals, pasta, rice, oats etc. that are made from “100 percent whole grains.” More processed grains such as white bread and instant rice may have some nutrients such as fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants removed during processing

Choose healthy fats

Believe it or not, eating fat can actually help you maintain a healthy lifestyle by helping keep your blood sugar in check and keeping you feeling satisfied for longer.

Your fat choices should come as much as possible from whole food options as opposed to processed foods. Polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats are healthy fats and should be included as part of a heart-healthy diet. Sources of healthy fats include:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Avocados
  • Fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines. Fresh, frozen and low sodium canned fish are all great options

Similar to protein, not all fats are created equal. Some have major health benefits and others aren’t so great for your overall health and can increase your “LDL” or bad cholesterol. Limit how much fat you get from animal sources such as butter, cream, high-fat dairy, fatty cuts of meat and poultry.   

For more information on the different types of fats read, ‘The truth about fats.’

The next time that you’re at a grocery store or preparing your next meal, think about the recommendations above to help keep your heart healthy.