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Heart Healthy Diet: What You Need to Know
Heart disease is among the leading killers of both men and women in the United States. While certain lifestyle factors such as maintaining a stable weight and regular exercise are important to 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 fight against heart disease and feeling your healthiest. In fact, choosing to follow a heart-healthy diet can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke by 80% (helpguide.org).
When you don’t know where to start, choosing to make simple changes to your eating habits and nutrition is a good place to start. To help keep things straight and understand the reasons behind the different nutritional recommendations, consider some of the following tips.
Be aware of the type of fat you eat
Fat is essential to your diet; in other words you need it! However, there are types of fat that can have a negative impact on your heart health; specifically, trans fat and saturated fat are the two types of fat of greatest concern. These two types of fats can affect blood cholesterol levels by lowering levels of HDL cholesterol (aka: good cholesterol) while raising levels of LDL cholesterol (aka: bad cholesterol) in your blood. When levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol are not within the normal range or out of proportion, this can cause excess cholesterol to collect in the walls of blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Foods that contain saturated fat include fatty beef, bacon, sausage, lamb, lard, cheese, and other dairy products made from sweet or two percent milk.
Trans fats are both naturally occurring and artificially produced. Many fried foods and packaged products also contain high levels of trans fat.
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 the total caloric intake.
Say no to salt
Like fat, sodium is a mineral essential to life. Sodium is necessary for many body functions, including fluid volume, acid-base balance, and transmission of signals for muscle function. But too much sodium can pose risks. When sodium is elevated in the bloodstream, this can increase water retention in the blood vessels and cause high blood pressure. Over time, if high blood pressure is not resolved, this can put a lot of strain on your heart, contribute to plaque build-up, and ultimately increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Sodium is a tricky ingredient and requires a little more effort and attention to detail when trying to cut back. A good place to start when trying to cut back on sodium is to check 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 large quantities without you even realizing it.
One place sodium likes to hide 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, to help reduce sodium intake when you choose to eat out or order take-out, please do not request added salt in your dishes.
Although this advice 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 per 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 50) ! Implementing these tips will not only help meet this recommendation, but reduce your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis, stomach cancer, kidney disease, and more.
Don’t skip vegetables (or fruit).
As many of us know, the consumption of fruit and vegetables is an important part of a healthy diet. A reduced consumption of products is associated with poor health and an increased risk of serious diseases. In fact, it was estimated that 3.9 million deaths worldwide are attributed to inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption (2017). Including fruit and vegetables as part of your daily diet is therefore something that cannot be rejected.
It is very easy to incorporate fruits and vegetables! Whether frozen, canned or fresh, each one will be sufficiently nutritious. If it has been difficult to include fruits and vegetables in your diet, start slowly. Try to gradually increase your fruit or vegetable portions throughout the day. Now, if you only eat 1 portion of vegetables or fruits per meal, add one portion for lunch and another for 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 are good! The AHA recommends filling at least half of your plate with fruits and vegetables to meet the recommended 4 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables per day. Although this recommendation may seem impossible – remember: all products count, which means canned, fresh or frozen varieties can help you achieve your goals, improve your diet and your health.
Whole grains, refined grains and dietary fiber – Oh my!
First, let’s understand whole grains, refined grains, and fiber. Whole grains contain the entire kernel, which includes 3 parts, bran, germ and endosperm, which offer all kinds of important nutrients like B vitamins, folic acid, fiber, iron and magnesium. On the other hand, refined grains have been ground and processed, which empties the grain of 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 reduced risk of heart disease. Another bonus is that high-fiber foods can help you feel fuller for longer and have fewer calories. Foods with a high fiber content are also generally whole grains! Therefore, increasing your whole grain consumption means that you also increase your 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 the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes. The AHA recommends that at least half of the grains you eat are whole grains and that you 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 about protein
For many of us, meat is a primary source of protein. But the popular meat sources such as burgers, steaks and bacon, although high in protein, are important sources of saturated fat (Reminder: the “bad” fat). A high consumption of this kind of protein can lead to an increased risk of many health complications such as obesity, high cholesterol, plaque build-up and of course heart disease and stroke. A switch to heart-healthy protein sources can go a long way in reducing these risks and help maintain a heart-healthy diet.
Changing “meat eating habits” can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. An easy tip to manage protein and meat consumption is to treat meat as part of the meal, instead of main event. Try to limit meat to 6 ounces a day, which is 2 servings (hint: single portion of meat = the size of the deck of cards).
As far as heart-healthy protein sources go, the AHA recommends including fish, shellfish, skinless poultry, and trimmed lean meats such as various cuts of pork. Starting to incorporate these alternative protein sources into your diet will help you get on track with your heart health.
Remember, it’s all about taking the simple steps forward to protect your heart and overall health.
A heart-healthy diet will be your best protection against heart disease and stroke. Start today by using these heart-healthy tips and continually evaluate your nutrition. Don’t let heart disease rule your world, make the changes that best fit your lifestyle and health goals.
Which of the above suggestions fits with the health goals you have in mind?
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