Valentine’s Day is upon us, let’s show some love to our hearts with the foods we eat. Heart healthy eating is a matter of choosing healthy fats, lower sodium foods, eating foods with more fiber and limiting added sugars. I describe each of these in more detail below.
Why Does Heart Healthy Eating Matter?
When we choose to eat foods that are heart healthy on a regular basis, we can help prevent heart disease and complications that can come with heart disease. Heart healthy eating can help reduce the risk for the following:
- Coronary artery disease- reduced blood flow to the heart due to cholesterol build up in the arteries
- Arrythmia- irregular heart beat
- Cardiomyopathy- inability of the heart to pump blood to the body due to the heart becoming enlarged or thickened
- Heart attack- when blood flow to the heart is blocked
- Stroke- when blood flow to the brain is blocked
- Aneurysm- a bulge in an artery wall that can potentially lead to internal bleeding
- Peripheral artery disease- decreased blood flow to arms and legs due to cholesterol build up in the arteries
- Cardiac arrest- sudden loss of heart function
- Heart failure- when the heart muscle is too weak or to stiff to pump blood to the whole body
Now that you know that heart healthy eating can help prevent heart disease and its complications, lets look closer at what heart healthy eating is!
Heart Healthy Eating is Opting for Heart Healthy Fats
There was a time when eating a low fat diet and low fat foods was popular and thought to help reduce cholesterol. However, fat is something that our bodies need. It is generally recommended that fat make up 20-35% of our daily calories. Through research scientists have found that the type of fats we eat are more important to focus on.
When talking about heart health we often look at lipid panels. Lipid panels are blood tests that look at the amount of fats in our blood. This includes total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (also called the bad cholesterol), HDL cholesterol (which is considered the good cholesterol) and triglycerides. The foods we eat have a large impact on these blood lipid levels.
Fats to include in our diet on a regular basis
Unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, should ideally make up the majority of our fat intake. Vegetable oils, which are liquid at room temperature, are a common source of unsaturated fats. This includes olive oil, avocado oil, canola oil and soybean oil.
Omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated fats that are found in ground flax seed, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans (edamame) and fish. Examples of fish that have omega-3s include herring, salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and trout. Omega-3 fats are often talked about because they are important for basic cell functioning and for general healthy functioning body systems. They are also very important for our brain health.
Fats to limit
Saturated fats are a major contributor to LDL cholesterol build up in our blood vessels. A good goal for most people is to limit saturated fat to less than 10% of daily calorie intake. For individuals who already have heart disease, it is best to limit saturated fat intake to 7% of daily calories.
Saturated fats are found in fats that are more solid at room temperature. Foods higher in saturated fats includes things like butter and foods made with a lot of butter, higher fat meats, sausages and bacon, full fat dairy foods, cheese, palm oil, coconut oil, etc.
While many of the foods we love have saturated fats, we can still enjoy them if we choose healthier portion sizes and how often we eat them. For example, while ice cream and bacon are both high in saturated fats, we can still enjoy them here and there. It is best to not eat these foods on a regular basis. We can also opt for low fat dairy products, leaner cuts of meat, and we can replace butter with other oils that are more heart healthy whenever possible.
Trans fats raise LDL cholesterol and also lower HDL cholesterol. That’s a double whammy to our health. Ideally we would avoid trans fats completely. Some trans fats are present in meats and dairy naturally. I think it is best to focus on avoiding trans fats that come from margarines and shortenings, pastries with flaky crusts, fried foods, and many prepackaged foods. The trans fats that are found in these products are usually made from vegetable oils that are hydrogenated by food industries.
Trans fats are added to foods for the textures they impart and also because they extend the shelf life of foods at the store. One of the best ways to avoid trans fats is by looking for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” next to oils/fats on the ingredient label. I don’t rely on the nutrition claims that say 0 gm trans fats per serving, because companies are allowed to say 0 gm as long as there is less than 0.5 gm per serving.
Dietary Cholesterol, which is the cholesterol we consume in food, may need to be limited too. For many people, dietary cholesterol does not have a large affect on their blood cholesterol levels. However, some people are sensitive to dietary cholesterol and do need to limit cholesterol in foods. Typically, if someone already has high blood cholesterol it is recommended that they limit dietary cholesterol to make sure all bases are covered. The recommended daily limit for dietary cholesterol is 200 mg per day.
Foods that are higher in cholesterol include full fat dairy products, higher fat meats, sausages and bacon, shellfish such as shrimp, lobster and crab, and also eggs.
Perhaps now you can see why the medical world has gone back and forth about eggs being healthy and unhealthy. Eggs provide so much good nutrition for us, but one egg yolk also has around 200 mg of cholesterol. For those that absorb more cholesterol from food, eating eggs often may increase their blood cholesterol levels. But for the rest of the population that are not sensitive to dietary cholesterol, eggs will not affect their cholesterol levels.
Heart Healthy Eating is Choosing Lower Sodium Foods
Sodium increases blood pressure and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke and heart disease. Limiting sodium can help prevent elevation in blood pressure and can also reduce complications in individuals that already have heart disease or high blood pressure.
Most of the sodium in our diet is from salt.
For the general population, it is recommended that sodium be limited to 2,300-2,400 mg per day. To give you a visual, this is the amount of sodium found in 1 teaspoon of salt.
That might sound like a lot but many of the foods we eat already have sodium in them. Even if we cook at home often, using things like sauces or canned ingredients can have a lot of sodium in them to begin with. When you add salt while eating at the table or while cooking, you are adding onto what is already in your food.
For individuals with heart conditions sodium may need to be further restricted to 2,000 mg/day or lower. Your doctor will let you know what sodium level you need to follow.
Other foods that tend to be high in sodium includes some cheeses, most lunch meats, soups, pre packaged bread mixes, bread and cereals, and food from restaurants.
A good rule of thumb to follow when using nutrition facts labels is to choose foods that have less than 300 mg sodium per serving. One other way to limit sodium is to divide your sodium intake over the number of meals and snacks you have. For example, if you are following a sodium level of 2,400 mg/day and you eat 3 meals and one snack most days, that could look something like 730 mg of sodium per meal and 200 mg sodium for your snack.
Heart Healthy Eating is Increasing Fiber Intake
Fiber is an important part of heart healthy eating because it actually lowers our total cholesterol. I am going to geek out here and share how this works, because I think it is so interesting. When we eat foods with fiber, the fiber binds to some of the bile in our digestive tract. (Bile is a fluid our bodies make to digest fats). We eliminate that bile when we go to the bathroom. Our bodies use cholesterol to make new bile, which therefore lowers our blood cholesterol. Fascinating!
Fiber is found in whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Women under 50 years of age need at least 25 gm or fiber daily. Women 50 years and older need at least 21 gm of fiber per day.
Men under 50 years of age need at least 38 gm of fiber per day. Men that are 50 years and older need 30 gm or more of fiber daily.
Replace Added Sugars and Refined Grains
While saturated fats and trans fats can contribute to high triglycerides, I think it surprises a lot of people to learn that refined grains that are low in fiber, and added sugars also cause elevated triglycerides.
To reduce the white refined grains in your diet you can choose to replace white bread with breads that have more fiber. You can also substitute white pasta with whole wheat pasta or pasta made with lentils or chick peas. You can also choose corn tortillas over white flour tortillas, and using brown rice in place of white rice.
There are many ways to reduce added sugars in our food. It helps to pinpoint where the added sugars are coming from and then go from there. For many people, added sugars can be decreased by replacing soda pop and other sugar sweetened beverages with things like water and sparkling water. We can also cut the sugar in half for recipes we use when baking. Lastly, we can limit how often we have dessert or how large our dessert portions are.
Other Heart Healthy Choices
Living a heart healthy life does not stop at our food choices. While my main focus is on the foods we eat, I do not want to forget to mention the importance of exercise. Exercise has so many health benefits, some of which include preventing heart disease. Exercise also helps lower LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure, and raises HDL cholesterol. To learn more, you can read the articles I wrote about exercise for adults and for children.
Additionally, choosing to not smoke and to limit alcohol intake are important too. Specifically, it is recommended women limit drinks to one per day and men limit drinks to two per day. You can read this article to learn about this in more detail, and to see what counts as one drink.
A Note on Restriction
The words restrict, limit, avoid and decrease tend to have a negative connotations. I think it is important to remember that saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, white refined grains and added sugars will never be fully eliminated from our diets. But it is in our best interest to be mindful of how much of these types of nutrients we are eating in our foods.
When we do choose to eat foods that are considered less heart healthy, I believe we should thoroughly enjoy them. I believe we should also be mindful of how often we are eating them, and when we do eat them we can be careful when choosing the portion size we eat. In the end, our goal is promote our own health; a healthy body enables us to enjoy life more.
When we do want to make changes towards eating more heart healthy, do not focus just on restriction and limiting, but ask yourself what you can replace it with. I like to try and use the words choose, opt, substitute and replace more. When we take a food out of our diet because of its nutrient profile we need to replace it with something else that is going to fuel our body in a healthier way.
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