February is not just about that special heart-shaped holiday we know as Valentine’s Day; it’s also dedicated to American Heart month. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in America, contributing to approximately 600,000 deaths each year. We shouldn’t overlook the fact that while men have more often been associated with an increased risk for heart disease, the profile is changing and it’s become an increased risk for women as well, contributing to approximately 20% of female deaths annually.
Here’s the good news: heart disease just so happens to be one that can be managed well through lifestyle adjustments and early intervention. High blood pressure, smoking, and a high LDL (bad cholesterol) remain as the top 3 risk factors for heart disease, and there are plenty of ways to address two of these through diet and exercise.
1. Eat Plentiful Produce:
You’ve probably seen this tip in my other blog posts, and you will most definitely see it again! Making vegetables and fruits a central part of your meals and snacks will expose you to heart healthy nutrients including Vitamins C, E, folic acid, magnesium, and potassium. Produce also contains a wide variety of antioxidants that can be protective against oxidation damage and, therefore, protective for your heart.
Practical strategies for shifting to a produce-heavy diet include:
Roast a sheet pan (or two) of vegetables at the beginning of the week to be used as a side, added to salads, or combined with eggs for a nutrient-dense, high fiber breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Aim to include a vegetable, fruit, or both with each meal and snack. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of excluding produce, especially since it takes time to clean and prep. Take advantage of pre-washed and cut produce that will save you time and effort. Salad greens that are ready to go and pre-cut fruit are an efficient way to get started.
Variety is key – there are unique properties and health benefits from each and every one. Try to avoid getting in a rut with the same routine day after day.
As an alternative to purchasing pre-cut produce, shop for your favorites and wash, chop and distribute into individual portions that will be ready to go. Store in the fridge at home or work. By preparing ahead of time, you’re more likely to actually be successful in getting enough vegetables and fruits.
2. Limit Processed, Refined Carbohydrates and Added Sugar:
This includes the obvious junk foods like chips, sweets and white-flour breads, pasta and cereals, but it also includes some foods that are often disguised as healthier options. Many people think that a gluten free diet, for example, is a ticket to healthful eating, but gluten free products are often just as processed as gluten containing alternatives.
Practical Strategies for reducing processed carbs:
Are you unwrapping your snack or pulling apart a bag of chips or cereal? If so, whatever it is that you’re opening is most likely a processed food. Instead, opt for foods that are as close to their natural/original state. Nuts, seeds, and fruit are a great starting point and require no in-depth analysis when glancing at a nutrition facts label.
Evaluate and clean up your beverage game. Remove/limit soda, juice, and sports drinks. Studies show that added sugar poses a particular risk for heart disease, and people who get 25% of their calories from sugar (which is easy to do if you consume sweetened beverages) are at much greater risk than those who consume less than 10% of their calories from sugar.
Read labels for “added sugar.” The FDA has recently changed the layout of the Nutrition Facts Label on packaging, which will help put things into perspective when it comes to added sugars. Plain yogurt, for example, contains a certain amount of natural sugar from the lactose component of milk. But, flavored yogurt will bring extra grams of sugar from the fruit flavored additives. The same is true for many other foods like spaghetti sauce, and condiments like salad dressing and ketchup. Being on the lookout for unnecessary sugar is key to being successful with an anti-inflammatory, heart health approach.
3. Ditch The Fear of Dietary Cholesterol
Despite the perception that consuming dietary cholesterol directly contributes to elevated blood cholesterol levels, and therefore heart disease, improved scientific methods and better research indicates that there’s not a strong association between dietary and blood cholesterol levels. Instead, it looks like genetics coupled with the type of fat you eat play a larger role.
This means that foods like eggs and shrimp, both high sources of dietary cholesterol are back on the menu, as should be plant-based monounsaturated fats such as avocados, olives (and their oils), and polyunsaturated fats from nuts and seeds. The mono-unsaturated fats found in olives and avocados are especially helpful in boosting HDL (good cholesterol) and lowering LDL (bad cholesterol).
By focusing on the right types of fat, you can safely let fat contribute 25%-35% of your total nutrient load. This may seem counterintuitive to those of you that have been on a low fat, whole grains diet for years, but the reality is that healthy fat can be anti-inflammatory and help curb hunger. And, while some whole grains are important, overly emphasizing grains often contributes to excessive carbohydrate intake that can trigger or exacerbate an inflammatory response.
4. Limit Trans and Saturated Fat
While the fats mentioned above can have a positive impact on lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk for heart disease, trans and saturated fats are the true bad guys when it comes to heart health. These are the types of fats hidden in animal protein, baked goods, and fried foods to name a few.
The current recommendation from the American Heart Association is to keep saturated fat to a minimum of 7% of daily caloric intake, which translates to about 15 grams or less per day for someone consuming a 2,000 calorie diet. Trans fat should be completely avoided when possible.
Here’s the bottom line:
Good fat plays a strong and positive role in heart disease protection and prevention. Less is not necessarily more when it comes to fat, but instead, discerning the types of fats being consumed is of greater value for all aspects of health. Add to that a bounty of high fiber, anti-oxidant packed produce and you’ll be on the road to better heart health!
Thanks for reading and please don't hesitate to reach out to me directly with questions or comments!