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The best—and worst—foods for your heart

How many times a day?

The American Heart Association has revised its dietary guidelines and now suggests that all healthy Americans aim for the following:

  • Eat a variety of fruits. Choose at least 4-5 servings per day.
  • Eat a variety of vegetables. Choose at least 3-5 servings per day.
  • Eat a variety of grain products. Choose at least 6-8 servings per day, at least half of them whole grain.
  • Include fat-free and low-fat dairy products, 2-3 servings per day.
  • Include fish, skinless poultry and lean meats, 3-6 ounces per day. Choose fish high in omega-3’s at least twice each week.
  • Choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as canola oil and olive oil. Avoid foods with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
  • Include 3-5 servings of nuts, seeds and beans each week.
  • Balance the number of calories you eat with the number you use each day. (To find that number, multiply the number of pounds you weigh now by 15 calories. This represents the average number of calories used in one day if you’re moderately active. If you get very little exercise, multiply your weight by 13 instead of 15. Less-active people burn fewer calories.)
  • Maintain a level of physical activity that keeps you fit and matches the number of calories you eat. Walk or do other moderate-intensity activities for at least 30 minutes on most days, preferably every day. To lose weight, aim for 60 to 90 minutes a day.
  • Limit your intake of foods high in calories or low in nutrition, including foods like soft drinks and candy that have a lot of sugars.
  • Limit foods high in saturated fat, trans fat and/or cholesterol, such as full-fat milk products, fatty meats, tropical oils, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and egg yolks. Instead choose foods low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol from the first seven points above.
  • Eat fewer than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day.
  • Have no more than one alcoholic drink per day if you’re a woman and no more than two if you’re a man. “One drink” means it has no more than 1/2 ounce of pure alcohol. Examples of one drink are 12 oz. of beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1-1/2 oz. of 80-proof spirits or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits.

Most adults don’t need anyone to tell them that a snack of chips (even the low-salt, low-fat or fake-fat kind) will never measure up to an apple when it comes to keeping the doctor away. As for other foods—your basic meat-and-potatoes meal, for example—the facts are less clear, leaving people to wonder if they’re really serving up the best variety for heart health.

Even the focus on fat is perhaps not as sharp as it should be. The American Heart Association’s 2006 Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations advise that total fat intake should be about 25 percent to 35 percent of daily calories, with no more than 7 percent coming from saturated fat. However, the AHA points out that the guideline applies to total calories eaten per day, not to individual foods or recipes. Applying the standard to single foods greatly limits the variety of foods in the diet and can be misleading.

Be that as it may, certain foods—like a macaroni and cheese dinner—will quickly take you over the top of your dietary limits.

Still confused? We’ve prepared a comprehensive chart that lets you see at a glance which foods you should eat more of, which ones to eat moderately and which ones to eat minimally. Refer to it each time you prepare a snack or meal, and rest assured you’ll be doing your heart good!


© 2014 Dowden Health Media