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The food choices you make today can shape the way you feel tomorrow—and years from now, too. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Horticulturalists and dietitians are bound not just by a mutual appreciation for the plant world. They also share a penchant for planning.

The horticulturalist will tell you the best time to plant a tree was 50 years ago. The second best time? Today.

The dietitian will tell you the same: You should have been making healthy food choices all along. But it’s never too late to change.

A proper diet will always be one of your best long-term defenses against heart disease. Exercise is equally important, but food—more of the good, less of the bad—is essential to a healthy cardiovascular system. You simply can’t outrun a poor diet.

Eat vegetables, avoid junk.

Easy enough, right? Not quite.

Heart disease continues to beleaguer millions of Americans. It outpaces accidents, cancer, stroke and a host of other maladies as it remains the No.1 killer in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Whether you’re fighting genetics or a lifetime of bad food habits, you should first try to scale back on added sugars and harmful fats. Once you’ve moved beyond that, there are plenty of ways to continue improving your diet, according to Holly Dykstra, a cardiovascular dietitian in preventive cardiology and rehab at Spectrum Health.

Follow some of these tips from Dykstra to build a heart-smart diet.

Fattier fish

All fish are good for you, but fattier fish are especially good, Dykstra said. Salmon, white fish, mackerel and tuna are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids.

“The benefit of omega-3s is they can decrease your triglycerides and lower your blood pressure, and they have anti-inflammatory properties as well,” she said. They also aid in brain health and joint health and they have a blood-thinning effect to prevent clotting and strokes.

Cod and tilapia, on the other hand, are decent fish but they just don’t pack the omega-3 punch of the more fatty fish.

“Those are OK to eat,” Dykstra said. “They’re a good source of protein and they’re lower in saturated fats, but they don’t offer the same benefits as (other) fish.”

Dykstra recommends having about two to three servings a week, each serving about 3-4 ounces.


Black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils—whatever your taste, beans are loaded with goodness, Dykstra said.

In a perfect world you’d opt for dried beans and cook them in water, but who has time for that?

“Realistically, for my own family, I use canned beans with no salt added,” Dykstra said. “That can be the difference of an extra 200 milligrams per serving. It all adds up.”

And so canned beans do the trick. You’re still getting fiber, the bean’s best material, and plenty of B vitamins and iron. Beans are also a plant-based protein source. In a study in Copenhagen, researchers found that beans and lentils may do a better job than meat in promoting a feeling of fullness.


Less of these

Sugar, salt and saturated fats will always find a way to creep into your meal. If  you’re looking to clean up your diet, Spectrum Health dietitian Holly Dykstra recommends keeping these items top of mind:

  • Hidden sugars. Watch out for foodstuff touted as healthier just because it has grains, probiotics or the like. Oatmeal packets and granola bars are good examples, Dykstra said. “With those packets of oatmeal, one packet can have 3 to 4 teaspoons of added sugar. Some people will eat two packets for breakfast because there aren’t a lot calories—so they’ll get 7 to 8 teaspoons of added sugar between those two packets.”
  • Sodium. There’s a lot of sodium in broths, soups and breads, even the whole grain variety—so don’t indulge. “I think a really good tip is to cook at home,” Dykstra said. “Going out to eat, you’re always going to get more sodium. Salt is antimicrobial, so a lot of times they’re just adding it to foods to make it stay fresher longer.”
  • Coconut oil. The opinions on oils are diverse. Bypassing the arguments for or against the many different oils, you should remember that coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which means you should limit your intake because it can affect cardiac health, Dykstra said. The same holds true with most oils, in fact—moderation is key, she said.

“It’s a good way to go for a meatless meal sometimes,” Dykstra said. “Animal sources of protein have saturated fat in them. Saturated fat, as we know, is less heart healthy. Stay away from the saturated fats and get more of the plant-based proteins.”

Can’t find canned beans with no added salt? Draining and rinsing canned beans can remove about a third of the total sodium in beans, Dykstra said.

First ingredient—whole grains

There’s just one simple tip here to steer you right: If you’re buying bread or pasta, look for the first ingredient on the bag. If it’s labeled enriched, skip it. If it’s “whole grains” or “whole wheat,” buy it.

The whole grain has all three parts of the grain: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. The bran and the germ are the healthiest, providing vitamins, minerals, fiber and healthy fats. “That’s what’s going to help with your heart health,” Dykstra said.

Refined grains, such as white bread, are generally stripped of the bran and germ so that all you have left is a starchy endosperm. Some vitamins are added as fortification, but nothing as substantial as the whole grain.

While dietary guidelines recommend you make half your grain consumption whole grain, Dykstra recommends you go all whole grains.

Ultra-dark fruits, vegetables

You’ve long known that fruits and vegetables are good for you. But when possible, choose the darker ones.

Dark leafy greens like kale, Swiss chard and spinach have loads of fiber and antioxidant properties, and they’re an excellent source of iron, magnesium and vitamins such as A, K and C, the latter of which is especially prime for cardiovascular health.

Berries are particularly good for heart health—blackberries, raspberries, blueberries. They have antioxidants and tons of fiber compared to other fruit, and they’re low in calories. “The antioxidants are big time in berries,” Dykstra said.

Leaner meats

Skinless poultry should be your first choice for lean meats as a protein source, but red meats are OK in moderation, Dykstra said. And if it’s the juicy deliciousness of a burger you crave, keep in mind there’s quite a difference between 80/20 beef and 90/10.

Dykstra laid out the simple math: Your typical ground beef burger is about 6 ounces. If it’s 80/20 beef, it has 12 grams of saturated fat. If it’s 90/10, it has 8 grams of saturated fat.

Eat four burgers in a month, you’re eating 16 grams more of saturated fat—or less, depending on the type of meat you choose.

For the standard diet, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 13 grams of saturated fat per day. Dykstra said you should eat no more than three 3-ounce portions of 90/10 meat per week, or about one-and-a-half burgers.

Just make sure it’s on a whole grain bun.