As the saying goes, you are what you eat. So when it comes to boosting heart health, your diet plays an essential role. That’s why eating an unhealthy diet that’s high in saturated fats, trans fats and sodium significantly increases your chances of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease. And conversely, eating a diet of nutrient-rich foods will help keep your heart in shape and rev up your overall health.
So how can you make your diet more heart-friendly and still please your family’s taste buds? Fortunately, all you need to do is make a few simple tweaks.
- Replace processed with fresh.First, eliminate — or, at the very least, limit — processed foods like chips, cookies, and crackers, which are often loaded with fats, sodium, and other unhealthy ingredients. Stock your kitchen with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables instead. “Unlike processed foods, these whole foods provide an abundance of disease-fighting properties that reduce heart disease risk,” says Sari Greaves, RD, CDN, New York City–based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and dietitian at Step Ahead Weight Loss Center in Bedminster, N.J.The bonus? Whole foods are usually low in calories but high in fiber, so they’ll fill you up on fewer calories — which could help you maintain or lose weight. One tip: When buying whole-grain foods like cereals or breads, make sure the label says “whole” and each serving contains at least three grams of fiber.
- Bulk up on lean protein.Protein is also an important part of any diet. “You get valuable nutrients from protein, and some sources like fish may even protect against heart disease,” Greaves says, adding that protein can also help you feel more satisfied, reducing your urge to nibble later. Healthy protein sources include lean cuts of meat; such as skinless chicken breasts; fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and herring; low-fat dairy products; eggs; nuts; nut butters; beans; lentils; and tofu. Caution: Protein sources can be high in calories, so don’t go overboard. “Think of protein as an accompaniment to a meal,” Greaves says. For optimal heart benefits, eat six to eight ounces of fish per week. Greaves even recommends going meatless two days a week.
- Watch those fats.Why worry about saturated fats? Plain and simple, they’re bad for your heart. “They can raise your cholesterol, which increases your risk for heart disease and stroke,” Greaves says. You’ll find saturated fats mainly in animal products, so veer toward lean cuts of red meat (look for words like round, loin, sirloin, or 90 percent lean), low-fat cheeses, and low-fat or skim milk. Trans fats are also dangerous to your heart, as they raise harmful LDL cholesterol levels, lower good HDL cholesterol levels, and increase your risk of heart disease. They’re usually found in fried foods; processed baked goods like cookies, pie crusts, and pastries; and stick margarines and shortenings. You can spot them by looking for the words “partially hydrogenated oil” on the ingredient list. Your body, though, does need fat, so focus on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, both of which can boost heart health. Look for them in peanut butter; fatty fish; vegetable oils like olive, canola, and peanut; avocados; nuts; and seeds.
- Practice portion control.Watch those portions, or you could risk gaining weight. One portion of meat, for instance, is three ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards; a serving of nuts is an ounce, or about a handful. To make it easier to eat less, use smaller bowls and plates. Then split your plate into four quadrants, Greaves says. Fill half your plate with veggies. Divide the other half between protein and starches like brown rice or whole-wheat pasta.
- Adopt heart-smart cooking techniques.Finally, know that how you prepare meals can affect how heart-friendly they are. Baking, broiling, and roasting are the healthiest options, while frying, especially in butter, is one of the least heart-friendly cooking methods. And rather than seasoning your meals with salt, try replacing it with herbs and spices like oregano, curry powder, and thyme.
It may take a little effort to make these switches, but the long-term payoff — your family’s health — will be well worth it!