We all know that watching what you eat is important for your waistline.
But it is important for your heart, too.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The risk factors can be controlled by eating right, staying active and maintaining a healthy weight.
“Everyone’s body is different,” said Dr. Jonathan Fialkow, medical director of clinical cardiology at the Baptist Cardiac & Vascular Institute. “Everyone’s lifestyle is different. But there are some general guidelines you can follow.”
The first thing to watch is your cholesterol level, said Dr. Ron Goldberg, professor of medicine in the Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism Division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
The American Heart Association differentiates between two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol.
Good cholesterol has been found to protect against heart disease.
Bad cholesterol is another matter.
“Bad cholesterol particles are normally filtering through the walls of our arteries,” Goldberg said. “The more you have in the blood, the more likely it will deposit into a plaque and cause blockage in the arteries, leading to a heart attack or stroke.”
You can avoid bad cholesterol by staying away from red meat, high-fat dairy products and fast food, Goldberg said.
Saturated fats can also raise blood cholesterol. For that reason, some medical institutions recommend limiting saturated fats to no more than one-third of your total fat calories, Goldberg said.
Goldberg advises against regimens like the low-carbohydrate Atkins Diet.
“There are some diets that try to reduce total calorie intake by using very high fat content, because it’s known that fat satiates the appetite better than carbohydrates,” he said. “But those are not recommended by the American Heart Association because they involve you eating more cholesterol and saturated fats.”
A better alternative, he says, is a Mediterranean diet — low in animal and saturated fats but containing the healthy fats found in olive oil, fish and nuts.
Carbohydrate consumption is also important to heart health. Refined and processed carbohydrates like white bread, white rice and pasta should be avoided, said Dr. Charles Russo, a cardiologist at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale.
“Highly processed starches break down immediately when you put them in your mouth,” Russo said. “That causes your pancreas to churn out a ton of insulin.”
Over time, high production of insulin could lead to the development of diabetes, Russo said. And diabetes brings with it an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Instead of processed carbs, Russo recommends a diet rich with whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans. High-fiber foods, he noted, slow down the absorption of sugar.
Those aren’t the only heart-healthy eating practices. Doctors recommend limiting your salt intake.
Small amounts of alcohol may help keep the arteries healthy. But more than one or two drinks each day cause the arteries to become inflamed — and possibly lead to blood clots, Fialkow said.
And even if you follow all of the rules, don’t overeat.
People who are obese are more likely to have high blood pressure, which can damage the arteries and cause heart disease, the University of Miami’s Goldberg said.