It’s never too late – or too soon – to think about your heart health. In the United States, heart disease takes the most lives every year, but there’s something you can do about that. By making proactive changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can help reduce your risk of developing heart disease – and influence others to do the same. Start the movement by adopting these five heart-healthy diet habits. And just for good measure, there’s a dietitian-approved meal plan to guide you through one full week of heart-smart eating.
Fight the fat
Fat is an essential part of a heart healthy diet. However, not all fats are created equally. Saturated fats should be limited and trans fats should be avoided as much as possible. Saturated fats include items such as dairy (whole milk, cream), marbled meats (bacon, sausage), poultry skin and butter. Trans fats are found in many packaged foods, solid fats such as shortening and stick margarine, pastries and baked goods, as well as some fried foods. Partially hydrogenated oil is another word for trans fat. The nutrition label can list trans fat as 0g if there is less than 0.5 g per serving. However, serving sizes in these products are not usually consistent with the amount the average person actually consumes. Fully hydrogenated oils contain saturated fat. Many times the label does not specify this, so it’s a good idea to limit all hydrogenated oils in your diet.
Help yourself to heart-healthy fats
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are protective of your heart health. Swapping trans fats and saturated fats for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats will keep your heart in shape. Foods high in monounsaturated fat include olive oil, avocados and nuts. Foods high in polyunsaturated fat include sources of omega-3s, walnuts, sunflower seeds and soybeans. Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that your body does not produce on its own. Therefore, you must get them through food. Good sources of omegas include salmon, herring and mackerel. You can also find plant- based omega sources, such as chia, flax and pumpkin seeds.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg, or 1 teaspoon, of table salt per day. The ideal limit is 1,500 mg daily. Reducing your sodium intake can help manage blood pressure, reduce fluid retention and weight gain and reduce your risk for heart attack, stroke and kidney disease as you age. Reduce your sodium intake by limiting cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, canned soups, frozen meals and bread. Look for “reduced sodium” or “no added salt” options in packaged foods. It’s also a good idea to cut back on eating out – including those drive-thru stops! Also, try to avoid the temptation of shaking on more salt at the dinner table. There’s usually ample salt added in the kitchen during preparation.
Fuel up with fiber
Aim for 25-35 grams of fiber per day. Adequate dietary fiber can help maintain healthy cholesterol and blood glucose levels. It’s also important for maintaining a healthy weight and reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease. Fiber helps you feel full longer, which reduces unnecessary snacking or overeating at meals throughout the day. High-fiber foods include whole grains like barley, rye, oats and brown rice. You can also get plenty of fiber from fruits and vegetables, especially with their peel or skin still intact. And, of course, you know the jingle: Beans, beans, the magical fruit! When choosing packaged foods, look for at least 4 grams of fiber per serving and make sure to drink plenty of water as you increase fiber intake slowly.
Say adios to added sugar
Too much added sugar in the diet contributes to weight gain and increased risk for many chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The American Heart Association recommends that women limit added sugar to 6 teaspoons per day, while and men should stick to no more than 9 teaspoons per day. As you well know, sugar occurs naturally in fruit and milk, but added sugars are lurking in many products you know and love. Whether in cookies, cakes, sodas or sport drinks, added sugar hides under many names. Be sure to check the ingredients for these words: Molasses, honey, syrup, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup and words ending in –ose (maltose, dextrose).
Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.