• Setting Goals & Starting a Heart-Healthy Eating Plan


    Want to jump-start your diet and nutrition for improved heart health? Not sure where to begin? After analyzing your eating behaviors, it is important to set small, achievable goals for yourself as part of a plan that will ensure your success. You may also want a referral from your doctor for nutrition counseling by a registered dietitian, who can help you determine realistic nutrition and weight-related goals.

    Rest assured, this is the last eating plan you will ever have to start! That is, if you are committed to the idea of a healthy lifestyle, and not just another diet. Avoiding all indulgent foods and following a temporary low-calorie, unpleasant eating regimen is not sustainable as a lifestyle. Rather, the best way to start eating for a healthy lifestyle is by making one or two small changes at a time to your usual eating habits.

    Set Goals & Tackle Them One Step at a Time

    After considering the heart-healthy guidelines, you get to decide for yourself which changes to make first. These will be your goals, so make them changes you can live with. Give yourself some time and don't expect to drastically change what you eat overnight.  Keep in mind that new behaviors take up to a month to become habit.

    Then when these initial changes become second nature, you can move on to achieve a couple more goals. Every little step helps, but the more heart-healthy eating habits you form, the healthier your heart will be.

    But don't wait until you get through the next day, the next weekend, or the next month before you begin to set some goals. Start today - at your very next meal. There is no reason to wait because SecondsCount.org can show you the steps to get started. Here's a step-by-step approach. We'll examine each step below.

    1. Check Your Weight
    2. Consider Calories
    3. Set SMART Goals
    4. Reward Yourself
    5. Get Help

    1. Check Your Weight

    First, figure out where you are, which will help figure out your nutrition goals.

    Obesity is prevalent in America, and it is a risk factor for heart disease. One of the first questions to ask yourself before considering your way of eating is "Do I need to lose weight?"  If you are overweight, losing 5 to 10 percent of your current weight can help lower your risk for heart disease and diabetes.  Determine your weight-related health risk using a Body Mass Indicator (BMI) Calculator. 

    2. Consider Calories

    If you like to know your numbers, consider using aCalorie Calculator tool to estimate your calorie needs (Basic Metabolic Rate). Then you will have a daily goal in mind, which can help when you're reading food labels and keeping a detailed food record.

    3. Get SMART Goals

    Setting small goals that are achievable will lead to success. And success breeds success. So, before you know it, you'll be living a heart-healthier lifestyle and feeling great about your achievement.

    The best way to make sure you are starting an eating plan that will be successful is to make sure your goals are SMART. SMART is an acronym that stands for:


    What do you plan to do? You may plan to walk more. But be even more specific so the plan is clear. For example, you plan to walk 20 minutes at lunchtime Monday through Thursday.


    You need to be able to measure your goals to see your progress. For example, you may want to eat a serving of fruit or vegetable at each meal for one week. If you can mark it on your calendar or a chart, you can measure it at the end of the week to see how you were able to increase your fruit and vegetable intake.


    Don't make your goals too hard to reach. Make your goals a series of small steps so that the end goal is easier to achieve. For example, you may want to lose 20 pounds, but that takes a lot of hard work and time. You may get discouraged if you have to wait that long to see any positive results. Instead, you might set an attainable goal of losing 1 or 2 pounds in one week by increasing your exercise to 30 minutes 4 times per week and cutting out soda. Then build on this goal's success with other goals to reach the 20-pound weight loss.


    Only set goals you know you will be able to achieve. That makes them realistic. You may like dessert and feel you should set a goal that you'll never eat dessert again. But that's not a realistic goal. Instead try eating a ½ cup of ice cream only on weekends.


    Pick a timeframe for completing your goal. It helps to have an end in sight, and preferably a short one. For example, you know you have to keep a food record to figure out what you are eating. Set a goal of writing down everything you eat and drink for 2 weeks. Knowing it's not forever may help motivate you to see it through.

    Here are examples of simple, heart-healthy changes you can use to set SMART goals:

    SMART Goal:  Portion Size

    Reduce your portion size and simply eat less than you usually do. This is a great first change to make because it allows you to enjoy the foods you usually eat while still making a heart-healthy change. Keep in mind, though, it may only get you so far until you eventually will need to make some other changes to make your eating behaviors more heart-healthy.

    Sample Goal: I will use a salad plate to limit my portions (with no second helpings) at dinnertime for 2 weeks.

    SMART Goal:  Snacks

    Snack on a piece of fruit and a small handful of nuts, or another sensible snack, instead of a packaged snack food. This snack is just as convenient as typical snack foods. And the fiber, protein and healthy fats in this snack, or other healthy snacks, will sustain your hunger longer.

    Sample Goal: I will pack one of these examples of sensible snacks to bring to work for a mid-morning snack Monday through Friday for one week.

    SMART Goal:  Milk

    Switch to skim milk. Whole milk (4-percent fat) has the most saturated fat (8 grams per cup), 2-percent milk has a little less (5 grams per cup), 1-percent milk even less (3 grams per cup), and skim milk has no fat. Gradually wean yourself from the higher-fat varieties to the lower fat milk. Your palate will be ready for the thinner consistency of skim milk if you give it time to adjust.

    Sample goal: (If you usually use whole milk) I will buy 2-percent milk for one month. Then I will move to 1-percent milk for a month. Finally, I will make the move to skim milk.

    SMART Goal:  White Meat

    Eat the white meat of turkey or chicken, which is lower in fat than dark meat, red meat and pork. Start using lean ground sirloin, pork tenderloin or instead of high-fat cuts of meat. Animal fat is the number one dietary source of unhealthy saturated fat.

    Sample goal: I will eat ground sirloin instead of ground beef for one month.

    SMART Goal:  Whole Wheat

    Select whole-wheat bread instead of white bread. Make sure it is 100-percent whole wheat, and lists "whole-wheat flour" as the first ingredient on the ingredient list.

    Sample goal: I will eat 100-percent whole-wheat bread instead of white bread for sandwiches at lunchtime for two weeks. 

    SMART Goal:  Water

    Drink more water. Even if you drink other beverages during the day, slowly reduce the amount of soda or juice you drink and replace it with herbal tea, seltzer or water.

    Sample goal: I will drink only water and no other beverages with breakfast, lunch and dinner for two weeks.

    SMART Goal:  Drinks

    Don't drink your calories. Rid your refrigerator of high-calorie, high-sugar beverages. Real food is usually more filling and more nutritious than juices, fruit drinks and other high-calorie beverages.

    Sample goal: I will eat a serving of whole fruit (orange, apple, ½ grapefruit, etc.) instead of drinking a glass of juice at breakfast three times a week for two weeks. 

    4. Reward Yourself

    It is a great idea to reward yourself for achieving your goals. It will give you something tangible to look forward to. It is best if the reward is something you only receive if you complete your goal.

    But don't use food as your reward. Try rewarding yourself with extra time spent with a friend, a hobby you've wanted to pursue or an activity that keeps you moving. Or try all three together! For example, go hiking with a friend and bring your camera to take photos of nature. Or take a dancing or yoga class for the first time with a friend. 

    5. Get Help

    Changing your lifestyle can seem overwhelming, even when you know to make only one or two changes at a time. It can be especially difficult to determine how to get started, or which change to make first. Your doctor can give you a referral to see a registered dietitian for nutrition counseling. This may be one appointment or a series of appointments to help you figure out where you are now and where you want to be.  If you would like some help, a dietitian can help you set initial, achievable goals and offer guidance and support along the way as you transform your way of life one small goal at a time.