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 ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Nutrition, Fitness Foods: Nutrition for a Healthy Heart

Fitness Foods: Nutrition for a Healthy Heart

Reading Time: 7 minutes 3 seconds


DATE: 2021-02-15

Heart disease accounts for nearly 1/3 of deaths worldwide. Heart health influences and is influenced by nearly all aspects of life. Cultivating a healthy diet and lifestyle is the best weapon to fight against heart disease. Knowing which foods to eat more of and which foods to limit will set your clients on a path towards a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Portion Size

Your clients need to understand calorie balance. Helping them gauge how many calories they should be consuming sets them on a healthy path for success. The nutrition world often emphasizes what kind of food is consumed. However, how much your clients eat is just as important as what they eat. Overloading their plate or eating until stuffed can lead to consuming more calories than they should.

Portions in restaurants are more than anyone needs in one sitting. Encourage your clients to consider splitting a plate with someone when they go out to eat or taking half of it home for leftovers the next day. When eating at home, consider using a smaller bowl or plate to control portion sizes. Eating larger portions of lower-calorie, nutrient-rich foods can also help avoid overeating and prevent heart disease later down the road.

More Fruits and Veggies Please

Fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamins and minerals that help support heart health. They are low in calories and rich in dietary fiber. Eating more fruits and vegetables can help your clients cut back on higher-calorie foods.

Leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale, and collard greens offer a wealth of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They are also a great source of vitamin K which helps protect arteries and promote proper blood clotting. Leafy greens are high in dietary nitrates which have been shown to reduce blood pressure, decrease arterial stiffness, and improve the overall functioning of cells lining the blood vessels.

Berries are a great heart-healthy food to maximize heart health and keep heart disease at bay. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are packed with nutrients. They are rich in antioxidants like anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are the pigments that give red, purple, and blue plants their rich coloring and help protect against oxidative stress and inflammation.

Sodium Intake

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg or 1 tsp of sodium per day. High sodium consumption can lead to bloating, puffiness, and weight gain. This is because too much sodium increases water retention within the blood vessels. This increased water retention can lead to increased blood pressure. High blood pressure can put a greater strain on the heart and can lead to heart disease. It can also contribute to plaque build-up that may block blood flow.

Passing on saltshakers at the dinner table is a good start. But it isn't so much the salt your clients shake onto their home-cooked meals that is the issue. 70% of Americans' sodium intake comes from processed, prepackaged, and restaurant foods. It is more difficult to limit sodium when it's already added before a food gets to your table.

It's important to check food labels as packaged and prepared foods such as canned foods, processed meats, and frozen dinners often have large amounts of sodium added during manufacturing. Sodium is added to enhance the flavor of packaged foods and act as a preservative to extend shelf-life. Encourage your clients to eat fewer processed foods and more homemade meals at home. This is a great way to control the amount of sodium consumed and avoid hidden sodium in prepared foods. Reducing overall sodium consumption can help keep your client's blood pressure at healthy levels.

Whole Grains and Dietary Fiber

We often hear nutrition experts talk about the importance of whole grains. But what exactly do they mean when they say whole grain?

There are two types of grain products:

  1. Whole grains

  2. Refined grains

Whole grains contain the entire grain. This includes the bran, germ, and endosperm. Refined grains have been milled or ground into a flour or meal. This process removes the bran and germ resulting in a finer texture and improved shelf life. However, this also strips the grain of important nutrients like B-vitamins, iron, and dietary fiber. Examples of refined grains are white and wheat flour, enriched breads, and white rice. Refined grains are often enriched, meaning some B-vitamins and iron are added back in after processing. However, fiber may not be added back into these enriched products.

Encourage your clients to include whole-grain products into their heart-healthy diet. Whole grains are a great source of dietary fiber. Dietary fiber comes in two forms, soluble fiber, and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber has been associated with reduced levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol transports fat molecules and cholesterol for storage around the body and is often termed "bad" cholesterol. This is because when the body has too much LDL, it can build up on the walls of blood vessels. This buildup, called plaque, may narrow blood vessels over time, increasing the risk of blocked blood flow to and from the heart which could lead to heart disease.

Your clients can make simple substitutions to replace refined grain products with whole grain solutions. The following foods are great sources of whole grains to include in a heart-healthy diet:

  • Whole grain bread

  • Brown rice

  • Barley

  • Rye and buckwheat

  • Oats and oat bran (offer the most concentrated source of soluble fiber)

  • Whole grain pasta

Encourage your clients to eat more of those whole grains and fewer of these nutrient-deficient refined grains:

  • White, refined flour

  • White bread

  • Frozen waffles

  • Quick breads

  • Cakes

  • Muffins

 ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Nutrition, Healthy Fats, Fitness Foods: Nutrition for a Healthy Heart

Unhealthy Fat vs Healthy Fat

Not all fats are equal when it comes to nutritional value and impact on heart health. Saturated fats have been shown to raise cholesterol levels in the blood. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and include foods like fatty beef, pork, butter, lard, and cream. In addition, many baked goods and fried foods contain saturated fat in higher levels. Saturated fats are not all bad and are healthy for the body in balanced amounts. The American Heart Association recommends that saturated fats make up about 5-6% of total calories.

Trans fats are another form of fat that your clients should limit consumption of. Trans fats are typically found in processed foods and often labeled as partially hydrogenated oils. Fried foods, baked goods, frozen pizzas, and margarine are common culprits containing trans fats. Trans fat can raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. This may increase risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Omega 3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are known to be beneficial for heart health. Omega 3s decrease inflammation, help lower LDL cholesterol, and have a positive effect on heart rhythm. Omega 3s cannot be created by the body so they must be consumed through the diet.

Encourage your clients to incorporate omega 3 rich foods into their heart-healthy diet. EPA and DHA are abundant in fatty fish like salmon and tuna. Walnuts are a great source of omega 3s and are also a great source of dietary fiber and micronutrients such as magnesium, copper, and manganese. If your clients struggle to eat enough omega 3 rich foods, supplements are also a helpful addition.

Monounsaturated fats are also healthy for the heart. They are known to lower LDL and increase HDL. HDL is typically termed the "good" cholesterol as it transports fat and cholesterol to the liver to be flushed from the body. Monounsaturated fats also provide the raw material needed for development and maintenance of cells. Good sources of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, almonds, peanuts, walnuts, and avocados.

Vitamins for Heart Health

Many vitamins can add an extra boost for overall heart health.


Folate is an important B vitamin for red blood cell formation and healthy cell growth and function. Homocysteine is an amino acid linked to the hardening of arteries. This is often the chief cause of coronary heart disease. B vitamins such as folate can help lower levels of homocysteine reducing overall risk for heart disease. Folate also reduces thickening of the arterial walls which can take some strain off the heart. The following foods are rich sources of folate:

  • Dark leafy greens like spinach and amaranth greens

  • Beans, peas, and nuts

  • Oranges, lemons, bananas, melons, and strawberries


Everyone has heard the saying "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." This might be because apples contain the flavonoid quercetin. Flavonoids are antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties and immune system benefits. Quercetin may help lower the risk of plaque buildup, reduce blood pressure, and lower LDL cholesterol, all of which lower the risk of heart disease. Quercetin is also found in citrus fruits, parsley, onions, sage, and some teas.


Lycopene is an antioxidant found in tomatoes. It is what gives tomatoes their red color. Lycopene has been shown to lower blood pressure and c-reactive protein which is a marker for cardiac inflammation. Lower inflammation means less likelihood of blockage that could lead to heart disease.


Magnesium is an important mineral involved in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. Aside from helping to maintain nerve and muscle function, magnesium keeps heart rhythm steady and helps maintain blood pressure. Magnesium consumption has been associated with a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. Encourage your clients to consume dietary sources of magnesium instead of supplementation. Whole grains, soy and tofu, almonds, black beans, and spinach are some of the best sources of dietary magnesium.

Nutrition for a Healthy Heart

The link between diet and heart health continues to grow. At the end of the day, it matters what your clients put on their plate. Encourage them to eat more healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, and vitamins to support heart health. Help your clients create an eating pattern that includes more of the foods that support heart health and less of the foods that don't. Consuming a heart-healthy diet is an overall pattern of choices. It is an accumulation of simple steps and healthy changes. Help your clients find a balance that works for them.

Are you interested in taking your knowledge of nutrition to the next level? Check out the ISSA Certified Nutrition Specialist program to earn your nutrition certification from the comfort of your own home.

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