People with heart disease tend to have something in common: Many have spent decades eating too much saturated fat and not consuming enough fruits and vegetables.
After being diagnosed with coronary artery disease and undergoing a quadruple bypass surgery at age 60, Alfred Pasquale, a marketer of cheese products in San Rafael, Calif., learned to eat in moderation. "My wife and I don't go out to eat as much as we used to, because I need to control what is on my plate," he says.
But whether dining out or at home, most people can make dramatic progress by following the guidelines below.
Cut meat intake
"If you had to target one particular food group to help your heart, it would be meat," says Jeffrey Frame, PhD, a registered dietitian and professor of dietetics at Murray State University. "Animal products and saturated fat go hand in hand."
Count fat grams
Ohlson also encourages heart patients to read labels of all packaged food. Anything with more than two grams of saturated fat per serving will do the heart more harm than good. You should also avoid any foods that have more than 1 gram of trans fat per 100 calories. Lots of packaged snack foods—including many baked goods, cookies, and potato chips—won't pass the test.
Bulk up on plant foods
The vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber in fresh produce and beans can help lower blood pressure while protecting arteries from damage.
Keep your weight under control
A study of nearly 30,000 men found that those with a BMI between 25 and 28.9 (which falls within the overweight range) had a 72% higher risk of developing heart disease during a 3-year period than lean men with BMI of 23 or under. The risk for obese men was even higher. Those with a BMI of 33 or above had a 244% greater heart disease risk than their slimmer counterparts.
Swap red meat for other protein
Red meat is especially high in saturated fat, says Melissa Ohlson, RD, coordinator of the Cleveland Clinic's preventive cardiology and rehabilitation nutrition program. Cutting portion sizes of steaks—or, better, substituting chicken or fish—goes a long way toward protecting the heart.