The food choices you make every day can either raise or lower your risk of having a heart attack. You may think you have to give up your favorite foods to prevent a heart attack. However, you can learn how to indulge in a delicious and satisfying diet that also decreases your risk of a heart attack. How does my diet affect my heart? Your eating habits affect the health of your heart and blood vessels in a number of ways. You want to significantly limit these items in a heart-healthy diet: Fat: Indulging in fatty foods that are high in cholesterol can increase cholesterol levels (high cholesterol). Excessive cholesterol can build up on the walls of the arteries that supply your heart muscle with blood, leading to coronary heart disease. This narrows or blocks blood flow to your heart and can cause a heart attack (myocardial infarction). Salt: A high-salt diet leads to increased sodium in your blood and increases the amount of water and fluid in your blood. This causes high blood pressure (hypertension). Hypertension makes your heart work too hard, damages your arteries, and increases your risk of a heart attack. Some people are more sensitive to salt than others. Sugar: Eating foods high in sugar or processed carbohydrates increases your blood sugar, which can lead to type 2 diabetes. High blood sugar damages your arteries and raises your chance of having a heart attack. These specific dietary elements are critical to watch out for, but eating too much and becoming overweight or obese also boosts your risk for developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. What are the best foods to prevent a heart attack? Eating the right foods for your heart doesn’t have to be bland or boring. The American Heart Association recommends that you eat a wide variety of nutritious foods every day. Here are some examples of heart-smart foods that you should choose often: Fresh fruits and vegetables. Frozen choices are fine too if labeled as low salt (140 mg or less per serving) and low fat. Lean and trimmed meats that are not fried. This includes skinless chicken and turkey, lean cuts of beef and pork, and fresh fish. Very low-fat meats, such as buffalo and elk are excellent choices and becoming more available. Heart-healthy oils, such as canola oil, olive oil, corn oil, and peanut oil Low-fat dairy products, such as skim milk and fat-free or low-fat cheese and yogurt Salt-free seasonings, such as pepper, garlic, lemon, and other spices. Ask your doctor if a “salt substitute” product is safe for you to use. Some products can raise potassium in the body to an unsafe level, especially if you have a chronic disease. Breads, pastas, and cereals made from 100% whole wheat or whole grain Other good choices include nuts, legumes, beans, brown rice, and seeds General guidelines for a heart-healthy diet include: Cholesterol: Less than 200 to 300 milligrams per day Saturated fats: Less than 7% of your calorie intake Trans fats: Less than 2 grams per day Sodium: Less than 1500 to 2000 milligrams per day Fiber: Aim for 22 to 28 grams a day for a woman and 28 to 34 grams a day for a man Sugar: No more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women and 9 for men every day What specific diets can help prevent a heart attack? It’s easy to be confused by dieting advice offered by your family and friends as well as in the media. Not all diets are good for your heart, so before starting a diet program, contact your doctor. The following diets incorporate many of the above recommendations. Some heart-healthy diets commonly recommended by doctors include: Biggest Loser Diet allows you to pick from many types of prepared meals made up of lean proteins, whole grain carbohydrates, and nutrient-rich vegetables. DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is rich in fruits and vegetables, low-fat or non-fat dairy, and whole grains. It is a low sodium, high fiber, and low-to-moderate fat diet. Mayo Clinic Diet, developed by Dr. Donald Hensrud, focuses on not only the food you eat and losing weight, but also on controlling unhealthy habits in your life, such as being sedentary. Your diet is drawn from the Mayo Clinic’s Healthy Weight Pyramid, which emphasizes fruits and vegetables and minimizes sweets and fats. Mediterranean Diet is a way of eating that includes some aspects of traditional Mediterranean foods, such replacing butter with olive oil, and salt with herbs and spices. Red meat is limited to a few times a month. Wine is allowed in moderation. Ornish Diet, created by Dr. Dean Ornish, is a plant-based diet very high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It discourages meat, poultry and fish. The only dairy allowed is fat-free yogurt, milk, fat-free cheeses, and egg whites. Foods not allowed include all fats, oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and refined carbohydrates. TLC Diet (Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes Diet) requires that less than 7% of your total daily calories come from saturated fat and you consume less than 2400 milligrams a day of salt. Vegan Diet eliminates meat, fish, poultry, and other animal products, such as eggs, dairy products, and honey. Vegetarian Diet eliminates meat, poultry or fish, and includes fruits, vegetables, dried beans, grains, seeds and nuts. Some vegetarians do not eat dairy products or eggs. To be heart healthy, a vegetarian diet must be low in sodium and saturated fats and should include whole grains. Volumetrics Diet encourages you to eat until you feel satisfied, as long as food choices are low in fat and heart healthy. This includes many types of fruits and vegetables and nonfat milk. Weight Watchers Diet is a points system to help track the types and amounts of foods you eat. Everything you eat has a predetermined number of points that you tally up throughout the day. You are only supposed to consume a certain number of points in order to lose weight. Whatever diet you choose, the most important goal is keeping your heart healthy and lowering your risk of a heart attack. Talk to your doctor about your options to determine the nutrition plan that's best for you.