Recommended daily intake: Two servings each of fruit and vegetables. For example, one serving is ten grapes (50 g) or 100 g of cooked leafy vegetables.
Fill your shopping cart with healthy food like fruits. Doctors recommend four servings or two cups of fruit daily. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Instead of a list of do's and don'ts, the American Heart Association's (AHA) healthy food recommendation for the heart comes down to two words: emphasise and minimise.
Based on AHA's 2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health, a healthy diet for the heart emphasises consuming fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy sources of protein and plant oils. It suggests forgoing salty, processed food and drinks with added sugars.
No food or beverage is banned. Instead, the organisation stresses how an individual's overall dietary pattern (the balance, variety and amount of food eaten or drunk regularly) rather than individual foods or nutrients may help the heart more.
"There's no reason to give up favourite foods or family traditions," Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., FAHA, the writing group chair for AHA's scientific paper, says in a video interview. "It's just a matter of putting a little thought in it at the beginning figuring out whether it's a matter of identifying different foods or modifying the foods to make them healthier or being more conscious about how frequently those foods are consumed or what the portion size is."
Healthy food for the heart
With grocery shopping as the starting point, you can make heart-healthy choices on how you prepare, cook, eat and drink. Here's a shopping list using "emphasise-and-minimise" as a guide. Consult your nutritionist or health practitioner if you have an underlying medical condition.
Colourful vegetables and fruits
Choose plenty of vegetables and fruits; the more colourful, the better. Plant-based foods in colours like red, orange and yellow or blue and purple contain phytonutrients, which can help protect against heart disease. Go for frozen, canned, or dried varieties without added sugars and low sodium content. These also have a longer shelf-life and are ready to use.
- Fresh vegetables like tomatoes, cabbage and carrots
- Leafy greens like bok choy, lettuce and spinach
- Fresh fruits like apples, oranges, bananas, pears and peaches
- Canned beans in water, like chickpeas or black beans
- Frozen vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower without sauce or seasoning
- Frozen fruits like strawberries or blueberries
100 per cent whole grain
Ensure whole wheat or another whole grain is listed first in the ingredient list for products with more than one ingredient. Choose 100 per cent whole grain.
- Brown rice
- Wholemeal bread
- Oatmeal or breakfast cereals with no added sugar
- Whole grain pasta
- Whole wheat steamed buns
Recommended daily intake: At least two to three servings. For example, one serving is two slices of wholemeal bread (60 g).
Look for fat-free or low-fat options or foods with added nutrients for milk, yoghurt and cheese.
- Skim milk
- Soy milk with added calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D
- Swiss Cheese (low in salt too)
- Plain Greek yoghurt
Recommended daily intake: Three servings. One serving is a 250 ml cup
Eating two to three servings of fish a week has been linked to a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, heart failure and stroke. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Avoid red meat as much as possible. Several studies have documented a direct association between eating red meat and cardiovascular disease (CVD) incidence.
- Frozen fish like salmon or tilapia
- Canned sardine or mackerel in tomato sauce
- Canned tuna in water or olive oil
- Chicken without skin
- Lean cuts of meat like pork shoulder, beef sirloin or at least 93 per cent lean ground beef
- Canned chickpeas or black beans in water
- Eggs (limit to one a day)
- Unsalted baked nuts, seeds or peanut butter
Recommended daily intake: Two to three servings. For example, one serving of lean meat, fish or poultry is 90 g (palm-sized).
Healthy fats and oils
Replace butter, lard, tropical oils (coconut and palm) with:
- vegetable oil like canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean or sunflower
- low-fat or light mayonnaise
- oil-based salad dressings like balsamic vinaigrette
Recommended daily intake: Two to three servings. For example, one serving is one tablespoon of vegetable oil or low-fat mayonnaise.
Check food labels
Drink 100 per cent fruit juice without additives or sweeteners. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Reading nutrition labels while shopping can be bothersome, especially with the tiny print. Keeping these five things in mind can help you make the right choice. No memorising hard-to-pronounce ingredients is required!
- Always choose products with lower fat, less sugar and lower sodium. When doubtful about the salt content in canned goods, use half or discard the brine or syrup.
- The first ingredient on a nutrition information panel weighs the most since the label lists ingredients in descending order.
- Sugar, salt and fat have many names. Sugar can be corn syrup, molasses or sucrose (best to avoid ingredients with "-ose" at the end). Salt can be chicken powder, monosodium glutamate or sodium nitrate. Fat can be shortening, vegetable oil or margarine.
- Choose minimally processed foods. These include bagged (pre-washed and pre-cut), canned, frozen or fortified foods. The key is to pick a sodium-free or low-salt option.
- Avoid indulging in ultra-processed foods and those high in refined carbohydrates or partially hydrogenated oil, a form of trans fat.
You may want to think about healthy food in meals rather than ingredients. Nutritionists recommend Mediterranean and DASH diets to promote heart health and lower the risk of kidney function decline.
Benefits of a balanced eating pattern
Heart-healthy eating patterns may require changes, but you don't have to give up your favourite foods. For example, you can eat out but choose sugar-free drinks. Enjoy deep-fried foods in moderation. Eat an apple instead of drinking fruit juice.
These healthy swaps may not seem like much, but the effect on cardiovascular health is immense. A comprehensive review in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shows an optimum diet can reduce the risk of CVD, cancer, type 2 diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.
Healthy food and beverage choices, a smarter eating pattern and an active lifestyle are the most natural approaches to preventive care. If you need the guidance of a comprehensive wellness programme, tap the network of experts at AIA Vitality. The challenges and rewards for the community may be the motivation you need to live a healthier, longer and better life.
AHA Journals. 2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. [online] [Accessed on 13 September 2022]
American Heart Association. 2021. New look at nutrition research identifies 10 features of a heart-healthy eating pattern. [online] [Accessed on 13 September 2022]
Singapore Heart Foundation. Shopping Smart. [online] [Accessed on 13 September 2022]
Singapore Heart Foundation. Heart Smart Eating Habits. [online] [Accessed on 13 September 2022]
Mayo Clinic. 2022. Trans fat is double trouble for heart health. [online] [Accessed on 13 September 2022]
Eat Right. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2020. Processed Foods: What's OK and What to Avoid. [online] [Accessed on 13 September 2022]
Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2020. Diet quality as assessed by the Healthy Eating Index, Alternate Healthy Eating Index, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension score, and health outcomes: a second update of a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. [online] [Accessed on 13 September 2022]
This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.