Skip to main content

What’s the link between heart health and nutrition?

| Heart Health | Healthy You | Eating Right

Woman opens a sliced avocado in her kitchen

How you “fuel” your body’s engine makes a difference in how well it runs and how long it lasts.

Whether you’re managing heart disease or trying to reduce your chance of developing it, what you eat is an essential part of an effective plan.

“I tell my patients to think of their heart as a high-quality engine,” said Cecelia Jacobson, RD, a dietitian for PeaceHealth’s cardiovascular program at Oregon Heart and Vascular Institute in Springfield, Oregon.

“You wouldn’t put cheap gas into a top-of-the-line car. So why would you fuel your body with food that will cause problems for your heart?”

So what’s the difference between “cheap gas” and “quality fuel” for your heart?

Quality doesn't mean expensive

In this case “cheap” doesn’t refer to the actual cost of the food, but rather how nutrient-dense the food is. Processed foods that your body can “burn through” quickly—like white bread or french fries—can leave you feeling hungry again in no time.

Quality foods—like apples or salmon—require your body to work a little harder to break them down, but your body gets far more nutritional value from them, which helps your system run smoother.

Food can be broken into three categories of macronutrients—fats, proteins and carbohydrates, noted Cecelia. “You want a balance of all three of these plus a good mix of micronutrients—essential vitamins and minerals.”

Here’s what to keep in mind when you “fuel up” for the day:

Fats – 20-30%* of daily calories

Numerous research studies show that not all fats are bad, as previously thought. In fact, we need good fats in our diet for our hearts—and the rest of our bodies—to function well. Just go easy. Too much is not good. The American Heart Association recommends getting no more than 5-6% of total daily calories from saturated fat.

Tabular chart showing healthy and unhealthy fats

Protein – 10-15%* of daily calories

Protein might be highly popular, but there are limits to what it can do for your body. You need the other macronutrients and associated micronutrients to keep your body “firing on all cylinders.” The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is a 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

chart showing desirable protein sources vs. undesirable and why

Carbohydrates – 45%-65%* of daily calories

As with fats, some types of carbs are healthier than others. Load up on complex carbohydrates in as close to their natural state as possible. Limit or avoid the simple carbs found in processed foods.

chart showing desirable types of carbohydrates vs. undesirable and why
* Percentages are based on USDA Recommended Daily Allowances for an average adult with no special restrictions. Several factors such as age, sex, height, weight and activity level affect these recommendations. You can use this calculator to explore the combination of nutrients that might work well for you; however, if you are on a special diet or have conditions that need to be closely managed, please talk with your doctor or a clinical dietitian before making any changes

Here are some additional points to keep in mind when it comes to keeping your heart in tip-top condition:

Water – drink the amount that works best for you

Water might not qualify as a nutrient, per se, but it is critical to your heart and overall health. Dehydration has been linked to high blood pressure. And chronically low water intake can contribute to a greater risk for heart disease, according to a study published in 2019. Ask your doctor for guidelines on water consumption that best suits your health needs. Read more on the role of hydration in health.

Fiber – aim to eat 25-30 grams per day

Fiber technically falls into the carbohydrate category in two forms: soluble (breaks down) and insoluble (doesn’t break it down). It’s immensely beneficial to heart health because it helps reduce bad cholesterol and triglycerides, both of which are risk factors in heart disease. Experts think 95% of all adults fall short on dietary fiber. Download this fiber intake worksheet for tips on boosting yours.

Sodium – control salt intake (eat less than a total 2,300 milligrams per day)

Sodium is a micronutrient vital to our health, but it’s easy to get too much. “Salt acts like a sponge and draws in fluids, which tend to collect around a person’s heart and lungs,” said Cecelia. “This increases blood pressure and can make it harder to breath.” If you have high blood pressure—a major risk factor for heart disease—be especially careful about your sodium intake. Read the latest sodium guidelines.

Sugar – avoid “added sugar” (or eat no more than 25-36 grams)

Except for what naturally occurs in foods, sugar is another substance to watch closely. “Added sugars contribute to chronic inflammation and raise blood sugar,” said Cecelia. “It can rev up our engines one minute and then leave us feeling ‘out of gas’ the next.” Sugar can also be addictive, causing us to crave it, which can lead to overeating and excess body weight. She noted the nutrition facts label was updated in January 2020, which now makes it easier to identify “added sugar” in a packaged product. Watch this webinar on reducing sugar intake.

Filling by volume

Loading up on good-for-you foods leaves less room for those that aren’t as healthful.

If you’re watching calories, you’ll find a variety of veggies and fruits can help. Did you know that each of the following has only 100 calories?  Six cups of cucumber slices. Four cups of cherry tomatoes. Two cups of baby carrots. cucumber slices in glass

“The more you make beneficial choices, the easier it will be for your heart to do its job,” said Cecelia.

If you’re having trouble shaking bad eating habits, consider a visit with your primary care provider and ask if a referral to a PeaceHealth dietician or cardiologist might be right for you.