Heart disease is among the leading killers of both men and women in the United States. While certain lifestyle factors like maintaining a stable weight and regular exercise are important for maintaining a healthy heart, the foods we choose to consume matter just as much. A healthy diet is one of your best weapons in the battle against heart disease and feeling your healthiest. In fact, choosing to follow a healthy heart diet may reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke by 80% (helpguide.org).
When you don’t know where to begin, choosing to make simple changes to your eating habits and nutrition is a great place to start. To help keep it all straight and understand the reasonings behind the various nutrition recommendations, consider some of the following tips.
Pay Attention to the Type of Fats You Eat
Fat is essential to your diet; in other words you need it! However, there are types of fat that can negatively impact your heart health; specifically, trans-fat and saturated fat are the two types of fats that pose the most concern. These two types of fats can affect blood cholesterol levels by lowering the level of HDL cholesterol (aka: good cholesterol) while elevating the level of LDL cholesterol (aka: bad cholesterol) in your blood. When the levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol are not within normal range or are disproportionate, this can cause excess cholesterol to collect in the walls of the blood vessels, which raises the risk for heart disease and stroke.
Foods containing saturated fats include fatty beef, bacon, sausage, lamb, pork butter, cheese and other dairy products made from whole or two-percent milk.
Trans-fat is both naturally occurring and artificially made. Many fried foods and packaged products contain high levels of trans-fat as well.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults should limit their consumption of saturated fat to five to six percent of their total calories. The consumption of trans fat should be less than one percent of total calorie intake.
Say No to Salt
Similar to fat, sodium is a mineral that is essential for life. Sodium is needed for many bodily functions including fluid volume, acid-base balance and the transmission of signals for muscle function. However, too much sodium can pose risks. When sodium is elevated in the bloodstream, this can increase water retention in the blood vessels causing elevated blood pressure. Over time, if elevated blood pressure is not resolved this can put great strain on your heart, contribute to plaque build-up and ultimately increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Sodium is a tricky ingredient and takes a bit more effort and attention to detail when trying to cut back. A great place to start when trying to cut back on sodium is checking the Nutrition Facts labels on products. Companies are required by law to list the amount of sodium, as well as other ingredients, in their products. As mentioned before, sodium can be sneaky and added to foods in great amounts without you even being aware.
One place sodium likes to hide out is in meals and dishes you order from a restaurant. In fact, more than 75% of sodium intake comes directly from processed and restaurant foods (wow!). Therefore, in order to help with reducing sodium intake when choosing to eat out or order take out-request no added salt in your dishes.
Although these tips may seem demanding, your sodium intake will be significantly reduced, and your heart will be happy. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, which is about the size of a teaspoon of salt (the recommendation is even lower, 1,500 milligrams, for people with chronic disease and over the age of 50)! Implementing these tips will not only help with meeting this recommendation, but reduce your risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis, stomach cancer, kidney disease, and more.
Don’t Skip the Veggies (or Fruit)
As many of us know, the consumption of fruits and vegetables is an important part of a healthy diet. A reduced consumption of produce is linked to poor health and increased risk for major diseases. In fact, it was estimated that 3.9 million deaths worldwide are attributed to inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables (2017). Therefore, including fruits and vegetables as part of your daily diet is something that cannot be dismissed.
Incorporating fruits and vegetables is very easy! Whether they are frozen, canned, or fresh-each one will be sufficiently nutritious. If including fruits and vegetables into your diet has been difficult, start slow. Try gradually increasing your fruit or vegetable servings throughout the day. If you now eat only 1 serving of vegetables or fruits at one meal, add a serving at lunch and another at dinner. Slowly introducing more and more fruits and vegetables to your plate will make this tip seem less overwhelming.
The good thing about eating fruits and vegetables-all of them are good! The AHA recommends filling at least half of your plate with fruits and veggies to fulfill the recommended 4 ½ cups of fruit and vegetables per day. Although this recommendation may seem impossible-remember: all produce counts, which means canned, fresh or frozen varieties can help reach your goals, improve your diet and your health.
Whole Grains, Refined Grains, & Dietary Fiber- Oh my!
Let’s first understand whole grain, refined grain, and fiber. Whole grains contain the entire kernal, which includes 3 parts, the bran, germ and endosperm, offering all kinds of important nutrients like B vitamins, folic acid, fiber, iron and magnesium. On the other hand, refined grains have been milled and processed, which depletes the grain from the previously mentioned nutrients.
Dietary fiber comes in two forms: insoluble and soluble. Increased fiber consumption is associated with reduced levels of “bad” cholesterol (remember: LDL cholesterol) and decreased risk for heart disease. Another bonus is that high fiber foods can help you feel full for longer and are fewer in calories. Foods high in fiber are generally also whole grain! Therefore, increasing your whole grain consumption means you’re also increasing fiber consumption. Why not kill two birds with one stone and switch to more whole grains!
Incorporating whole grains can help improve blood cholesterol and lower risk for heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes. The AHA recommends that at least half of the grains you eat are whole grains and to consume 28 grams of dietary fiber per day. This includes foods like whole grain bread, brown rice, whole oats, whole grain barley and more.
Be Picky with Protein
For many of us, meat is a primary source of protein. However, the popular meat sources- like burgers, steaks, and bacon, although high in protein, are major sources of saturated fat (reminder: the “bad” fat). A high consumption of these kinds of proteins can lead to an increased risk for many health complications like obesity, high cholesterol, plaque build-up and of course-heart disease and stroke. Making a shift to heart healthy protein sources can help significantly reduce these risks and aid in maintaining a heart healthy diet.
Making changes to “meat eating” habits can be difficult, however it does not have to be impossible. One easy tip for managing protein and meat consumption is to treat meat as a part of the meal, instead of the main event. Try limiting meat to 6 ounces a day, which is 2 servings (hint: single serving of meat= size of deck of cards).
As far as heart healthy protein sources, the AHA recommends including fish, shellfish, skinless poultry and trimmed lean meats such as various cuts of pork. Beginning to incorporate these alternative protein sources into your diet will help you get on the right track with your heart health.
Remember, it’s about taking the simple steps forward to protecting your heart and overall health.
A heart healthy diet is going to be your greatest protection against heart disease and stroke. Start today by utilizing these heart healthy tips and continuously evaluating your nutrition. Don’t let heart disease rule your world, make the changes that best fit with your lifestyle and health goals.
Which of the suggestions above fit with the health goals you have in mind?
Bonnie R. Giller is a Registered and Certified Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. She helps chronic dieters, emotional eaters, and people with medical conditions like diabetes, break the spell that diets have over them and reclaim WholeBody Trust™ so they can live their life to the fullest. She does this by creating a tailored solution that combines the three pillars of WholeBody Trust™: Mind Trust, Hunger Trust and Food Trust™.