Eat This, Not That…For Your Heart
From the desk of Lainey Younkin, MS, RD, LDN... February is American Heart Month, a national initiative to raise awareness about the number one killer in the United States: heart disease. Heart disease refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels, such as heart attacks and strokes. One in four deaths are caused by heart disease each year in this country. While there are some things you can’t control about your health – like your genes – the good news is that there are many things you can control – like what you put in your mouth. Here’s what to eat and what not to eat to keep your most important muscle healthy.
Grains get a bad rap, but whole grains are part of a heart-healthy diet because of their high-fiber content. Soluble fiber, found in many whole grains, reduces LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by binding bile acids. To add more soluble fiber to your diet, eat oatmeal, barley, beans, peas, apples, strawberries, and oranges.
Salmon is high in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two omega-3 fatty acids that reduce inflammation in the body. Omega-3s also decrease triglycerides and increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Eat 1-2 servings of salmon per week to reduce your risk of heart disease. One serving equals about 3 ounces (the size of a deck of cards). Don’t like salmon? You can also get these heart-healthy fats from lake trout, sardines, herring, and albacore tuna. However, pregnant women and children should limit fish intake due to toxins.
Walnuts contain a different type of omega-3 fat called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is converted to EPA and DHA in the body. Aim to get one serving of omega-3 fats in your diet each day, but be mindful of the portion size. Even heart healthy fats are still high in calories, so measuring them is key. One serving of walnuts equals about 12-14 walnut halves.
Good news chocolate lovers: you can enjoy your dark chocolate guilt-free. Cocoa beans are rich in flavanols, a group of plant nutrients with antioxidant effects. Research shows that flavanols improve blood health by lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow. Here’s the catch: the more the chocolate is processed, the fewer flavanols it contains. Reach for dark chocolate containing at least 70% cocoa and enjoy a small piece a few times each week. Limit milk chocolate and white chocolate, as they are high in saturated fat, which raises your cholesterol.
Move over, bananas. One sweet potato contains more potassium than a banana. Potassium-rich foods help blunt the effects of high blood pressure and keep vessel walls from thickening. Eat a variety of colorful fresh fruits and vegetables to reap the benefits of potassium and limit sodium intake so you don’t undo potassium’s positive effects. Leafy greens, avocados, and yogurt are also high in potassium.
Refined grains are the product of processing whole grains. During processing, bran is stripped away, taking the heart-healthy fiber and B vitamins from the food. Swap white rice, white bread, white pasta, crackers, chips, pastries, doughs, and pie crusts for whole grains like oats, barley, quinoa, bulgur, wheat berries, and brown rice.
Cheese is high in both sodium and saturated fat. Too much sodium causes the body to retain water, which puts pressure on blood vessels and organs causing blood pressure to rise. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is often referred to as “the silent killer” because it usually has no symptoms. Saturated fat is also harmful for your heart because it elevates your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which can form plaque on the inside of your vessels and narrow your arteries.
Fried Foods, Margarine, & Coffee Creamer
Fried foods, margarine, and coffee creamer have one thing in common: trans fats. Trans fats are an artificially made fat that raise your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and decrease your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Many products are now trans-fat free, but they still linger in some foods. If you aren’t sure, look for “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients list. Food companies can put up to 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving and still say 0 grams on the nutrition label. Doughnuts, pre-packaged baked goods, frozen pizza, pie crusts, and margarine all contain trans fats. Not all creams have trans fat, but many of the flavored and non-dairy coffee creamers contain it, so check the label.