Answers to Common Questions

Eat Better

Find answers to frequently asked questions about nutrition, like why healthy eating is important and how to improve your diet.

  • What are whole grains?
  • Grains are what make up common foods like bread, rice, pasta, oatmeal, cereal, tortillas, crackers and popcorn. Whole grain foods include the entire grain seed, which keeps all nutrients like fiber and iron intact. Refined grains, on the other hand, remove a portion of the seed to create a finer texture, which depletes key nutrients. Thus, guidelines encourage choosing whole grains over refined grains as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.
  • What is potassium?
  • Potassium is a mineral that helps the body’s nerves and muscles function. Potassium-rich foods include fruits, vegetables and beans like bananas, spinach, squash, potatoes and soy beans. Although potassium has been linked to reduced cardiovascular risk, too much potassium can be dangerous for certain individuals, like patients with heart failure or kidney disease.
  • What is a healthy waist circumference?
  • Waist circumference is an important tool used to assess an individual’s weight. A healthy waist circumference is less than 35 inches for women and less than 40 inches for men. Having too much fat in the waist and abdomen has been linked to increased risk for heart disease and other serious conditions, so maintaining a healthy waist circumference is important to promoting good health.
  • What is abdominal obesity?
  • Abdominal obesity is defined as having a waist circumference greater than 40 inches for a man or 35 inches for a woman. Although excess fat can have a negative impact on health, carrying extra belly fat is especially harmful, increasing risk for heart diseasediabetes and cancer, among other conditions. The good news is that losing just 3-5% of body weight can help reduce cardiovascular risk and improve overall health.
  • What is the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats?
  • Eating saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in the blood, which increases risk of heart disease and stroke. Unsaturated fats, however, help lower cholesterol levels and, in moderation, can lower risk of heart disease. Most saturated fats come from meat and dairy products, as well as baked and fried foods. Unsaturated fats can be found in fish, nuts, seeds and certain oils. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats is recommended to reduce risk for heart disease.
  • What foods contain folic acid?
  • Folic acid is contained naturally in certain foods, such as fruits, vegetables and legumes. Grain and cereal products are also fortified with folic acid to ensure that Americans get the recommended daily level of folic acid.
  • What is folic acid?
  • Folic acid is a type of B vitamin that the body needs for good health. Folic acid helps the body make healthy new cells and having enough folic acid before and during pregnancy can help prevent serious birth defects. Research also suggests that folic acid may promote heart health and help prevent certain types of cancer.
  • What is iron and why do we need it?
  • Iron is an essential mineral needed by our bodies. Iron is used in many cell functions and having too little iron, called an iron deficiency, can have a negative impact on our health. Not only can iron deficiencies cause symptoms such as feeling tired or weak and decreased immune function, it can cause complications for patients with heart conditions. That’s why it’s important to screen for iron, especially among patients at high risk for iron deficiency.
  • How much water should I drink each day?
  • Consuming at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water or other fluid every day is important for good health. However, how much water you need depends on your health, how active you are and where you live. For example, if you exercise intensely or live in a hot climate, you may need to drink more water than usual.
  • What foods contain high levels of salt?
  • Americans get most of their sodium from processed and restaurant foods. Foods highest in sodium often include canned foods, pickled foods, cheese, deli meats, sauces (soy sauce and salad dressings) and many snack foods.
  • Where is salt content listed on a nutrition label?
  • Salt content is listed on a nutrition label under “sodium,” which can be found after fat and cholesterol. When reading a nutrition label, it’s important to check the serving size and number of servings per container. You can calculate the total sodium content of a food by multiplying the number of servings per container by the sodium content in one serving.
  • Is olive oil considered heart-healthy?
  • Yes, extra-virgin olive oil contains monounsaturated fat, which is considered a “healthy” fat. Replacing unhealthy fats (unsaturated and trans fats) with monounsaturated fats can have a variety of health benefits, including reducing risk for heart disease.
  • What are the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables?
  • Fruits and vegetables are low in fat and calories and contain a wealth of important nutrients, such as potassium, fiber and vitamin C. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet may help reduce risk of heart disease, cancer and other health conditions.
  • Are diet drinks bad for heart health?
  • Previous studies have linked frequent diet drink consumption to increased cardiovascular risk, but further research is needed on the topic. Until we learn more about the relationship between diet drinks and heart health, moderation is key when it comes to the consumption of diet drinks.
  • Are all types of fat bad for the heart?
  • No, there are many different types of fat—some of which are harmful and some of which are beneficial. The two main types of harmful fats are saturated fat and trans fat, both of which can increase cholesterol levels. Healthier types of fat include monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which may help promote cardiovascular health. Although you don’t need to eliminate fat from your diet, it’s important to consume fat in moderation and choose healthier fats when possible to promote a healthier heart.
  • What is a vegetarian?
  • Although the term vegetarian typically refers to someone who doesn’t eat meat, there are different types of vegetarians. Vegans are the strictest type of vegetarians, who avoid any type of meat or foods derived from animals (dairy, eggs, etc.). Other types of vegetarians eat dairy (lacto-vegetarians) or dairy and eggs (lacto-ovo-vegetarians), but avoid all other meat and fish.

  • How can I lower my blood pressure through diet?
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet is one of the best ways to help lower blood pressure. Limiting salt intake and eating plenty of whole grains, fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, like with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, can help significantly lower blood pressure.

  • Should I take a daily multivitamin?
  • Research suggests that multivitamins may offer certain benefits, like improved mental and physical health. However, the true health benefits of multivitamins are unclear and may vary between individuals.
  • How much caffeine can I safely have in one day?
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that adults have no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, which is equivalent to about four to five cups of coffee. However, the FDA notes that there is no safe level for children.
  • What is a heart-healthy diet?

  • A heart-healthy diet is full of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains and includes low-fat dairy, fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet. It’s important to limit intake of added sugars, salt (sodium) and bad fats (saturated and trans fats).

  • What makes nuts heart-healthy?
  • Nuts are packed with heart-healthy fats, protein and disease-fighting vitamins and minerals. As such, regular consumption of nuts has been shown to prevent heart disease and diabetes.
  • I'm a pharmacist in Ontario. Please clarify the health benefits/risks of coconut oil. Dietitians and trainers are advocating 1–2 tablespoons daily, putting it in coffee (with butter!). The packages say “no cholesterol.” But one tablespoon contains 130 calories and 12 grams of saturated fat. Related question: Is it better to eat margarine or butter?

  • Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, and for heart disease prevention we recommend avoiding trans fat and saturated fats. It is probably best to use spreads that are fortified with polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) or plant sterols. A softer spread is probably healthier than hard butter, but it all depends on your calorie intake versus how many calories you use. An overall healthy lifestyle with eating a primarily Mediterranean-based diet and getting plenty of physical activity (two common guidelines are 10,000 steps per day or 30 minutes of activity five times per week) is the key.

    Best regards,

    Puja Mehta, MD, FACC

  • What is the DASH diet?
  • DASH is an eating plan that can help lower your blood pressure. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The DASH eating plan focuses on foods that are low in bad fats, sugar and salt, but high in calcium, potassium, and magnesium. This includes fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, and beans. These foods can help lower blood pressure and reduce risk of heart disease.
  • What is the Mediterranean diet?
  • The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating rather than a formal diet plan. It features foods eaten in Greece, Spain, southern Italy and France, and other countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.

    The Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating foods like fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, high-fiber breads and whole grains, and olive oil. Meat, cheese, and sweets are very limited. The recommended foods are rich with monounsaturated fats, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids.

    The Mediterranean diet is like other heart-healthy diets in that it recommends eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber grains. But in the Mediterranean diet, an average of 35-to-40% of calories can come from fat. Most other heart-healthy guidelines recommend getting less than 35% of your calories from fat. The fats allowed in the Mediterranean diet are mainly from unsaturated oils, such as fish oils, olive oil, and certain nut or seed oils (such as canola, soybean, or flaxseed oil). These types of oils may have a protective effect on the heart.  For more information, read this overview of the Mediterranean diet.