If you’re building your plate with your heart in mind, you probably already know the more general rules for eating for heart health, like going easy on red meat and loading up on veggies. But determining how various packaged foods affect heart health is a bit tricker than considering whole foods. Nutrition panels are packed with lots of helpful and important info, but it isn’t always intuitive to know what to zero in on. And besides, you don’t want to spend forever analyzing everything you’re considering putting in your cart—otherwise, you’ll never make it to checkout.
In a recent health summit hosted by The Well, cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, shared what he looks for on nutrition labels when food shopping. Want to save yourself some time? Below are the factors he says to focus on when it comes to heart-healthy food shopping:
1. Sodium content
“Aim for as low as possible,” Dr. Mozaffarian says. This is because high amounts of sodium force the body to retain fluid, which can then increase blood pressure and stress out the heart. As a rule of thumb, you want to keep your sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams a day, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Dr. Mozaffarian says comparing sodium content between similar foods in the same category—like various tomato sauces or soups—can be a good deciding factor on which one to go for. It’s also worth noting that sodium can pop up in foods you might not expect, such as bread, cheese, and condiments.
Here’s what to know about sodium in food—including surprising sources of it:
2. The ratio of carbohydrates to fiber
“The lower the ratio of carbs to fiber, the better,” Dr. Mozaffarian says, adding that a good benchmark to aim for is 10 grams of carbs for every one gram of fiber. “This intrinsically balances refined grains, starches, and sugars versus whole grains, seeds, and bran.”
His recommendation comes a Harvard School of Public Health study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition. The Harvard researchers looked at more than 500 products with grains sold at Walmart and Stop & Shop stores. They found that foods with the 10:1 carbs-to-fiber ratio tended to have less sodium, sugar, and trans fat (all not great for cardiovascular health) than grain products with a higher carbs-to-fiber ratio.
3. Fat quality
The last major factor Dr. Mozaffarian says he eyeballs when reading nutrition labels is the fat content. “Look for foods that have much higher total fat than saturated fat, which means they are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats,” he says. Saturated fat is linked to putting stress on the heart while unsaturated fats are beneficial for heart health.