Along with exercise, diet is one of the most important factors impacting your heart health. Simply put, what you eat and drink every day helps shape the health of your heart now and in the future.

The good

On one side are foods that can reduce your risk of heart disease if you choose them consistently. They include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, and healthy sources of protein, such as beans, eggs, fish, and skinless chicken and other lean meats.

The Mediterranean diet, recommended by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology, includes many of those heart-healthy foods, as well as the use of olive oil as a healthy source of fat. It’s the only diet that’s proven to reduce risk of stroke and heart attack.

While a vegetarian diet can be beneficial for your heart because it excludes meats, which can lead to a lower intake of saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol, for some people supplements and fortified foods may be necessary to fill nutritional gaps.

There are also questions about whether a vegetarian diet decreases cardiovascular events. So far, only the Mediterranean diet is proven to do that. However, there are health benefits from the vegetarian diet that go beyond the cardiac realm. For the right patient, it can be a good choice.

If you’re not ready to go vegetarian, you could just plan a meatless meal once or twice a week to enjoy some of the benefits of reducing meat in your diet.    

The Bad

On the other side of the heart-healthy diet are foods you should avoid or eat only in moderation because they can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. They include:

• Foods and beverages with added sugars. Sugar-sweetened beverages are major culprits. Consuming too much sugar can lead to an increased accumulation of fat, fatty liver disease and Type 2 diabetes. And it can raise your blood pressure, a risk factor for heart attack and stroke. 

• Full-fat dairy products. These foods are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, both of which can contribute to the accumulation of plaque and other substances in the blood. That can narrow your arteries, increasing heart attack and stroke risk.

• Red and processed meats. These contain saturated fats and trans fats, both of which can  make you more vulnerable to heart disease and stroke.

• Sodium-rich foods. Many processed foods contain high levels of sodium, which is a component of salt. Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure.

To develop heart-healthy habits, start by making incremental changes. For example, decrease your sugar-sweetened beverage intake by one drink a day, swap regular ground beef for a leaner version and choose 2% milk instead of whole milk.

You might not be able to change your entire diet in one day, but even small changes can make a huge impact.

Dr. Stephen Fedec is a board-certified cardiologist with Beaufort Memorial Heart Specialists in Okatie and Beaufort.