February Nutrition: Love Your Heart

Love Your Heart Through Diet And Exercise

Kim Albritton, MS, RDN, LDN

Heart disease is still the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States.  With the typical American diet and lifestyle, many people put themselves at risk for developing heart disease.  The good news is you can take action to prevent this by adopting some simple lifestyle changes. With February being American Heart Month, is there a better time to love your heart and a greater time to make a commitment to being more heart healthy with regards to diet and exercise? 

When a registered dietitian or doctor  refers to a “heart-healthy” diet, they generally mean to increase the amount of fiber in one’s diet, and reduce unhealthy fats and excess sodium in one’s diet.  So how do we do this?  Below are some helpful habits that will help you aim for a healthy heart.

Increase Your Fiber Intake

What should be your daily fiber goal?  Aim to consume around 25 grams of fiber daily.

  • Eat More Fruits and Vegetables – this is an essential part of a healthy diet because they are low in calories and high in fiber and other nutrients.  Fruits, vegetables, and starchy vegetables such as legumes, beans, and peas are great sources of fiber and will also help you feel full longer, decreasing the amount of calories you may consume.  Of course, fresh is best, but canned or frozen fruits and vegetables can be sufficiently nutritious as well, and they are very convenient to keep on hand for quick meals.  Make sure to read the food labels.  Canned fruits and vegetables often have higher sodium content.  Produce should be canned in water or its own juice.  Be sure to drain and rinse fruits canned in light syrup. 
    • Eat More Whole Grains: whole wheat, oats and oatmeal, rye, barley, popcorn, brown and wild rice, and quinoa are all popular types of whole grains.  Whole grains are often higher in fiber and help improve blood cholesterol levels and lower risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
    • Tips for Increasing Fiber:
      • Always include vegetables with lunch and dinner meals
      • Eat whole fruit instead of drinking fruit juice
      • Snack on raw vegetables, nuts, and seeds instead of chips and crackers
      • Substitute plant based proteins for meat two to three times per week

Watch Your Fat Content

New research shows that when it comes to dietary fat, it is more important to focus on eating beneficial, healthy fats and avoid harmful fats versus adopting a low fat diet. 

*Limit Bad Fats, Such As Saturated And Trans Fats

Foods containing saturated fats raise the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood which in turn, increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.  Foods high in saturated fats include fatty beef, bacon, sausage, lamb, pork, butter, cheese, and dairy products made from whole percent milk. 

Trans fats, also known as trans atty acids, are found in processed foods and labeled as partially hydrogenated oils.  Trans fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol level in the blood AND lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol level in the blood leading to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.  Common culprits of foods high in trans fats includes fried foods and baked goods as well as frozen pizza and margarine. 

* Be sure to choose meats carefully.  Meats are a great source of protein for many but may also be a major source of saturated fat.  The American Heart Association recommends fish, shellfish, skinless poultry, and trimmed lean meats. 

Eat More Healthy Fats –

Fat is an essential part of our diet and important for good health, as long as we consume healthy fats.  Heart healthy fats are unsaturated fats that are classified as either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats.  These healthy fats are found in foods such as olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, peanut butter, and fatty fish.  Other beneficial fats include flaxseed, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. Fatty, oily fish are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids.  The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 2 servings per week of 4oz of oily, fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna, herring, or trout.  These types of fish have been shown to reduce heart disease, reduce inflammation, strengthen the mind, and ease movement by the body.

Say No To Salt

Too much sodium in the bloodstream can increase water retention in blood vessels and increase blood pressure.  Over time, high blood pressure puts excess strain on the heart and can lead to plaque buildup. 

Tips For Increasing Fiber:

  • Pass on the salt shaker – don’t add salt to your meal at the table
  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Eat less bread, cheese and processed meats
  • Limit processed foods (canned products, frozen products, prepackaged foods)
  • If using canned foods, choose the low / no sodium options
  • Use food labels to assess the amount of sodium in your food products

Portion Control

Over the past several years, portions have grown significantly in size in restaurants.  Do you know how much you are really eating?  If you are serious about your health and either losing or maintaining a healthy weight, it would be wise to learn the size of healthy servings of various foods.  Knowing what an actual serving is can be a key to your success.  One can eat only “clean, healthy” foods, yet still gain weight if not sticking to proper portion sizes.  Nutrition labels can be very helpful to know what a serving is.

You may be surprised to learn these are serving sizes:

  • 3oz portion of meat (the size of a deck of cards)
  • 1 slice of bread
  • ½ cup rice or pasta (cooked)
  • 1 small piece of fruit (large apples and bananas are 2+ servings)
  • 1 wedge of melon
  • ¾ cup of juice
  • 2 oz cheese (about the size of a domino)
  • ¼ cup of dried fruit and nuts
  • 1 Tbsp of fats such as dressings, mayonnaise, and peanut butter (size of tip of thumb)

*Drink Only Water And Unsweetened Beverages

Avoid sugar sweetened beverages.  Stick to water and non-sugar sweetened beverages to stay away from added sugar.  Sugar found in beverages can add up quickly and contribute to weight gain and obesity, which are risk factors for heart disease.

Stay Active –

Exercise offers huge benefits for your health, whether it be to lose weight, gain muscle, or maintain the healthy shape you are in.  Working out regularly can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels and keep your metabolism up to speed.  It is also a great stress reliever.  As always, check with your physician before beginning an exercise program.

A heart healthy diet forms the foundation of fighting heart disease.  Eating well can help you maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels while reducing your risk for obesity and diabetes.  Changing your eating habits does not have to be drastic to be effective.  Don’t aim to make all of these changes at once.  Gradually setting small goals to work towards making some of these changes above will give you realistic and attainable lifestyle changes that can significantly decrease your risk for heart disease and start you on the way to better overall health.