Like many of my patients you may want to do your best for the health of your heart (and the rest of you) and yet may be confused about which foods are the best. You might think that to protect your heart you have to forgo all your favorite foods for a bland and boring diet that you’ll never be able to stick to. As I explain to my patients, that’s just not true. Within reason, you’d be surprised at how much you can reconcile/modify what you really like to eat with what’s healthy for your heart. Here’s how…
EATING RIGHT FOR YOUR HEART
Heart disease is the #1 killer of Americans today. Our diets are the biggest contributor to our levels of heart disease through too much saturated fat and refined sugar levels and too little fiber. The following is what I recommend to my patients to modify their diet and make it more heart healthy without foregoing some favorite foods:
- Limit sugar. The American diet has far too much refined sugar in it, but it also has a high amount of natural sugars in it. High sugar intake, of both types, can cause type 2 diabetes which can then lead to the development of heart disease. I advise my patients to cut out – or way down – on the amount of refined sugar in their foods. I also tell them to limit the amount of natural sugars to not more than 20-25 grams of total sugar intake from fruits, vegetables, and other foods. Read labels. If you’re trying to lose fat, reduce this level to between 15-20 grams sugar per day to help you burn fat reserves.
- Eat breakfast: One of the best things you can do for your heart (and the rest of you) is to eat breakfast. Oatmeal with 2 tablespoons mixed, unsalted nuts, is a great heart-healthy breakfast food. If you don’t like oatmeal, opt for 2 eggs with heated, mashed white or red kidney beans, with a little olive oil, garlic powder and grated cheese. Delicious and full of fiber. Or, opt for whole wheat toast with 0-1 gram sugar bread.
- Fish for lunch or dinner: Salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, are all good 1 meal a day choices. These confer Omega-3 fatty acids that preventinflammation and decrease LDL cholesterol. Substitute scallops here and there for chicken or beef which are lighter in saturated fat.
- Healthier Salads: On your salad, opt for 2 tablespoons of flaxseeds or mixed nuts instead of croutons. These lend heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering fats to your diet without sugar. Watch the salad dressing though as commercial brands can be high in sugar and fat. Instead use red wine vinegar mixed with olive oil, or just plain lemon juice or balsamic vinegar with spices added. Use Greek yogurt instead of sour cream for added calcium and less saturated fat.
- Healthy snacks/Fiber: Berries (all types, especially blackberries and blueberries) provide necessary antioxidants that boost heart health. Vegetables like cut up cucumbers, carrots, radishes, celery, edamame, all confer vitamins, minerals and protein that the heart thrives on. They also add fiber that sweeps excess cholesterol out of your bowel before it is absorbed into your blood. Aim for 25-30 grams daily. Special movie night treat: homemade air-popped popcorn with near 90% less saturated fat than potato or tortilla chips and twice the fiber. *Note: If you take thyroid medication or have a history of breast cancer, ask your doctor about eating edamame, a soy product.
- Drink alcohol sensibly: Substitute red wine for mixed, often-sugary drinks that can boost HDL (good cholesterol) levels.
- Enjoy meat sparingly: You can still eat red meat on a heart-healthy diet, just do so sparingly. Stick to grass fed beef that is much leaner than grain fed and use it more as a side dish to more vegetables and grains like quinoa, rather than the main course. Try ground turkey for burgers or meat loafs.
- Ban trans-fats: Trans-fats can really wreak havoc with heart vessels. Currently food manufacturers are working to omit or reduce the amount of these in the foods we buy. Until then, read labels and choose products that say 0 trans fats. However, be sure to read the ingredients too as any vegetable oils that have been “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” are trans-fats. Even if the percentage per serving is less than 1 gram, eating several servings a day can add up to more than a few grams of trans-fats.
- Limit/ban soda: Regular soda contains large amounts of both sugar and sodium. Diet soda doesn’t contain sugar but still contains a lot of sodium, and likely aspartame, all of which can drive up blood pressure and decrease heart health. Healthier swap: Switch to a diet soda that contains no sodium or aspartame like Diet Rite brand. Still, limit to 1-2 cans a day.
- Watch sodium: Many canned foods like tuna, beans, and vegetables contain lots of sodium. Sodium drives up blood pressure which puts strain on your heart. You can decrease their sodium level by pouring foods into a colander and rinsing them with cold water to remove excess salt before eating.
- Stay hydrated: Did you know that many illnesses, including heart disease, can get their start from just being dehydrated? It’s true. Dehydration can have a negative domino effect throughout the entire body and brain. Drink half your weight in water every day.
Eating right for your heart doesn’t have to be diet drudgery. If you stay within the above guidelines, they will go a long way in helping lower your LDL cholesterol, strengthen your vascular system and decrease your risk for heart attack and/or stroke.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.