1. Control your portion size
How much you eat is just as important as what you eat. Overloading your plate, taking seconds and eating until you feel stuffed can lead to eating more calories, fat and cholesterol than you should. Portions served in restaurants are often more than anyone needs. Keep track of the number of servings you eat — and use proper serving sizes — to help control your portions. Eating more of low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and less of high-calorie, high-sodium foods, such as refined, processed or fast foods, can shape up your diet as well as your heart and waistline.
A serving size is a specific amount of food, defined by common measurements such as cups, ounces or pieces. For example, one serving of pasta is 1/2 cup, or about the size of a hockey puck. A serving of meat, fish or chicken is 2 to 3 ounces, or about the size and thickness of a deck of cards. Judging serving size is a learned skill. You may need to use measuring cups and spoons or a scale until you're comfortable with your judgment.
2. Eat more vegetables and fruits
Vegetables and fruits are good sources of vitamins and minerals. Vegetables and fruits are also low in calories and rich in dietary fiber. Vegetables and fruits contain substances found in plants that may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Eating more fruits and vegetables may help you eat less high-fat foods, such as meat, cheese and snack foods.
Featuring vegetables and fruits in your diet can be easy. Keep vegetables washed and cut in your refrigerator for quick snacks. Keep fruit in a bowl in your kitchen so that you'll remember to eat it. Choose recipes that have vegetables or fruits as the main ingredient, such as vegetable stir-fry or fresh fruit mixed into salads.
3. Select whole grains
Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that play a role in regulating blood pressure and heart health. You can increase the amount of whole grains in a heart-healthy diet by making simple substitutions for refined grain products. Or be adventuresome and try a new whole grain, such as whole-grain couscous, quinoa or barley.
Another easy way to add whole grains to your diet is ground flaxseed. Flaxseeds are small brown seeds that are high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower your total blood cholesterol. You can grind the seeds in a coffee grinder or food processor and stir a teaspoon of them into yogurt, applesauce or hot cereal.
4. Limit unhealthy fats and cholesterol
Limiting how much saturated and trans fats you eat is an important step to reduce your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of coronary artery disease. A high blood cholesterol level can lead to a buildup of plaques in your arteries, called atherosclerosis, which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
The American Heart Association offers these guidelines for how much fat and cholesterol to include in a heart-healthy diet:
The best way to reduce saturated and trans fats in your diet is to limit the amount of solid fats — butter, margarine and shortening — you add to food when cooking and serving. You can also reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet by trimming fat off your meat or choosing lean meats with less than 10 percent fat.
You can also use low-fat substitutions when possible for a heart-healthy diet. For example, top your baked potato with salsa or low-fat yogurt rather than butter, or use low-sugar fruit spread on your toast instead of margarine.
You may also want to check the food labels of some cookies, crackers and chips. Many of these snacks — even those labeled "reduced fat" — may be made with oils containing trans fats. One clue that a food has some trans fat in it is the phrase "partially hydrogenated" in the ingredient list.
When you do use fats, choose monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil or canola oil. Polyunsaturated fats, found in nuts and seeds, also are good choices for a heart-healthy diet. When used in place of saturated fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may help lower your total blood cholesterol. But moderation is essential. All types of fat are high in calories.