Eating a healthy diet can reduce some risk factors for heart disease and stroke. But what does that mean, exactly, when there are so many definitions of a healthy diet? You can increase your heart health by choosing foods with little or no:
* trans fats (artery-clogging hydrogenated fats) found especially in fried foods, processed foods and commercial baked goods)
* saturated fats (artery-clogging fats found mostly in foods from animal products and some plants)
* cholesterol (found in foods from animal products and can raise blood cholesterol levels)
* added sugars (can raise blood sugar and cause or worsen diabetes, which is closely linked with cardiovascular disease and excess sugars in the diet may be stored as fat)
* added salt (too much sodium, a main component of salt, can raise blood pressure and is unhealthy for people who have cardiovascular disease, especially heart failure).
Limiting all these ingredients would be ideal, but that can be a tall order in today's busy, processed-food-loving world. You can achieve a heart-healthy diet by making gradual changes: Set a specific goal, overhaul your pantry and eat more fruits and vegetables.
START WITH A GOAL
Zero in on one or two areas of your diet to improve first. If you try to make too many changes at once, you can become overwhelmed, lessening your chances of making long-term changes, says Sandra Dunbar, R.N., the Charles Howard Candler professor of nursing at Emory University in Atlanta. “That goal should be clear and simple,” she says. “Do you want to reduce dietary sodium? Increase your fresh fruit and vegetable intake? Reduce the amount of red meat you eat? Pick one, and then you can prepare shopping lists around that goal and measure progress over time.” (For more information on shopping smart at the grocery store, visit HeartInsight.com to read our online-only bonus article, “Buy Right, Eat Right.”)
Heather Rasmussen, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, suggests getting other household members on board with your planned change. “Ideally, it should be a joint goal and everyone can share ideas about ways to achieve it and changes they are willing to make,” she says.
According to Dunbar, there are three main ways to decrease or eliminate your intake of undesirable foods or ingredients without going cold turkey:
* Find a substitute. With today's emphasis on healthy eating, many foods are also available in healthier versions. If you like ketchup, for example, which contains a lot of sodium, look for one with less sodium.
* Space out your indulgences. “When there are some foods you can't or won't eliminate, set a specific goal to eat them less often, once in a while as a special treat,” Dunbar says.
* Reduce your intake. When indulging in a treat, cut that item in half. You'll still enjoy the flavor you crave but with fewer calories.
You can use the opposite technique to increase your intake of heart-healthy foods, too. If you want to increase your calcium intake, says Dunbar, “Find the opportunity to eat an additional serving of fat-free yogurt each day.”
OVERHAUL YOUR PANTRY
Once you've chosen your goal, remove items from your pantry (including cupboards, refrigerator and freezer) that will not help you reach it. In general, the farther removed a food is from its natural state, the less healthy it is. Start by reading the labels of every item you have on hand to determine which foods will help you reach your goal and which will hinder your progress.
But how do you know what to look for? The short answer: It depends. “When patients come to see me, they want specific numbers to use when reading labels,” says Rasmussen. “But target numbers can change according to a person's age, ethnic or racial background and medical situation.”
Look for the American Heart Association's Heart-Check mark on food packages, which means the food has been certified to meet the AHA's criteria for a heart-healthy food (visit heartcheckmark.org for more information). Simply look for the name of the American Heart Association along with the familiar red heart with a white check mark on the package.
Limit intake of sodium (salt), solid fats (such as full-fat dairy products, meat and some tropical oils, such as coconut oil), added sugars and refined grains. Emphasize more nutritious foods and beverages, vegetables, fruits, fiber-rich whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, seafood, lean meats and poultry, beans, nuts and seeds.
Sodium should be less than 1,500 milligrams per for everyone. “If each meal has less than 500 mg sodium total you'll reach your goal, but it's very hard to do that eating processed food,” Dunbar says.
A good rule of thumb is to consider a food whose label shows a % Daily Value of 5 percent or less to be low in that nutrient. Foods that have a % Daily Value of 20 percent or more contain a high level of that ingredient. “But that alone doesn't tell us whether a food is healthy or not because some things we want to be high, some we want to be low,” says Kristie J. Lancaster, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor of nutrition at New York University in New York City. “The best way to use labels is to compare different types of foods or different brands of the same type. Compare sodium, for example, in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals—and choose foods with lower numbers.”
Part of reviewing your pantry staples will be to decide what can stay and what should go. “If you shouldn't be eating it, get it out of the house,” Rasmussen says. “Ideally, you'll be functioning as a team with the family so you can all decide together what foods should be in your home.” Then handle unwanted foods by disposing of expired items and taking nonperishables that haven't expired to your local food bank.
KEEPIN' IT REAL
“If you fill half your plate with veggies and don't put a lot of sauce or cheese on them, you'll be eating a heart-healthy diet,” Lancaster says.
Rasmussen says she uses a similar approach when planning her own meals. “Half my plate needs to be vegetables, so how am I going to reach the correct amount? And what is my quick and easy protein source for this meal?” she says. “I'll often go with frozen green vegetables, a blend of spices, something with whole grains and some protein option that's not fried. That's simple and healthy.”
As far as low-fat protein goes, consider stocking up on frozen unbreaded chicken breasts and fish filets. “You can buy them individually wrapped and pull only what you need out of the freezer so there's no waste,” Lancaster says. “Sprinkle them with olive oil, add herbs and bake or broil them.”
FINE-TUNE YOUR OPTIONS
Expect following a heart-healthy diet to be an ongoing process. As you give up old foods and try new ones, some will be more successful than others. For example, brown rice is more nutritionally complete than white rice, but that doesn't mean it will be a hit at your house. “Some people just can't give up their fluffy white rice. In that case it's better to serve white rice than a fried side dish option,” Lancaster says. “Or maybe you like the taste of brown rice but don't like the extra time needed to cook it. In that case, look for packaged frozen brown rice that cooks in minutes in the microwave.”
Top stock-up staples
Beans: Dried or canned, beans make an inexpensive, high-fiber protein source. Dried beans are naturally low in sodium but can be time-consuming to prepare, so plan ahead. Canned beans can be a good compromise, but rinse them first to wash away sodium added during the canning process.
Broth: Low-sodium chicken, beef or vegetable varieties are healthiest. Use them to add flavor to sautéed vegetables, mashed potatoes and meat.
Chickpeas: Hummus is a great lunch or snack food, so why not make your own, using canned chickpeas? You can choose your quantity and seasonings to your taste.
Nuts and seeds: Choose unsalted, raw or dry-roasted nuts. Nuts contain lots of protein and polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, the best kinds. Nuts make a great snack, though the calories will add up too quickly if you overindulge. Stick to a serving size of ¼ cup. Freeze or refrigerate large quantities to preserve freshness.
Oatmeal: Naturally high in fiber and low in fat and sodium—what's not to love? Just avoid presweetened instant varieties.
Oils: Olive oil is probably the best for everyday use. Canola, peanut and sesame oils contain monounsaturated fats, while corn, safflower and soybean oils have polyunsaturated fats, so they're all good choices, too.
Shelf-stable proteins: Look for chicken, salmon or tuna packed in water with the lowest amount of sodium.
Spices and herbs: Commercially available blends are great as long as they don't contain salt. You can also create your own custom blends to liven up salads, chicken breasts, fish filets and side dishes.
Vinegars: Experiment with all the many types available, including balsamic and rice. Splash some on meat, fish, vegetables or combine with a heart-healthy oil for a great salad dressing.
Whole grains: Cereals, pasta and rice are all fair game. Just look for varieties that list whole grains (not just “wheat” or “wheat flour”) as the first item in the ingredient list. For side dishes, try other easy-to-make high-fiber, whole grains like bulgur, couscous and quinoa.
You may also need to fine-tune the percentage of fresh food you eat. “Some people get hung up on the idea that fresh is best. That's true, but frozen can be more convenient and people these days are moving pretty fast,” Lancaster says. “Get the best of both worlds by freezing homemade sauces, lasagnas and casseroles. Freeze individual portions, so when you want something later, just thaw what you need and serve with added vegetables.”
Don't hesitate to seek out personalized advice if you need it. “Hospitals and physicians often have nutrition experts available,” says Dunbar. “Many patients would benefit from a consult–just ask your doctor if there is someone you can talk to.”
Finally, just because you've gotten used to reading labels, don't stop now. Manufacturers change their products often, both in response to customer tastes and interest and to increase their profit margins. “A few years ago, so many people were worried about eating too much fat, that food companies reduced fats but added sodium to compensate,” says Lancaster. “Food companies often add something else when they take one ingredient out and if you don't know that, you could be eating too much of the wrong things out of a false sense of security.” Luckily, if your heart-healthy eating plan veers off course, getting back on track should take just a few simple adjustments.