Last updated: Apr 20, 2008
"I want to live a long and active life, so I followed my doctor's advice."
Whether you already have heart disease or are trying to avoid it, the basics of a heart-healthy diet are the same.

• Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.
• Eat variety of grain products, especially whole grains.
• Choose fat-free and low-fat dairy products.
• Choose legumes, poultry, and lean meats.
• Eat fish, preferably oily fish, at least twice a week.

But adopting these habits isn't easy. Paul Tasner, 62, of Greenbrae, Calif., has cholesterol that zoomed up to 298 five years ago. "That's comparable to having little bits of cheese floating around in your arteries," he says. On a fat-restricted vegetarian diet, he was able get it down slightly. But he has a hard time resisting cravings for junk food, especially when he is traveling on business.

"I still eat like a teenager," he says. "I'm kind of a chocoholic, and I love bread and baked goods." Luckily Tasner has brought his cholesterol down to 150 with medication, but a healthy diet should not be forsaken.

Cutting fat is key
For those who want to start eating healthier, cutting back on saturated fats should be a top priority, says Stanley Rockson, MD, chief of consultative cardiology at the Stanford University Medical Center.

"Across the board, too much saturated fat will raise levels of LDL cholesterol," he says. "And high LDL cholesterol is the most compelling risk factor for atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries."

One could greatly reduce his saturated fats intake simply by cutting back on meats, says Jeffrey Frame, PhD, a registered dietitian and a professor of dietetics at Murray State University. A four-ounce chicken breast—about the size of a deck of cards—is all you need a day. (For more on portion control, visit the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute's website).

Turning a traditional diet into a heart-healthy plan
Orie Platero's father died of heart failure.
In Crownpoint, N.M., in 1999, Orlinda "Orie" Platero sat with her father as he slowly died from heart failure following decades of trouble that included bypass surgery 20 years earlier. Speaking to her in Navajo, he had asked her to promise to avoid his fate. "He told me to be strong and healthy for my boys," she says.

Platero, 50, now works for the Indian Health Service in Rockville, Md., and follows through on that promise she made. She watches what she eats. She exercises regularly. And unlike her father, she's made it well into middle age without even a hint of heart disease.

Platero wants to stay healthy for her family.
Through healthy eating and active living, she has turned a looming threat into a remote possibility. "We're a native family, and we've always had a lot of animal fat," says Platero.

She bucked that tradition by cutting way back on meat and eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Her cholesterol and weight have dropped, and she's confident that she'll avoid the heart troubles that plague so many Americans.