By Lorna G. Williams
Heart disease is the number one killer of both women and men. Eating a heart healthy diet is the key to helping to reduce your risk factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, overweight, and obesity. It will also help you control these conditions if you already have them. If you want to have a healthy heart, you have to learn how to eat a healthy heart diet. All of the food you eat affects the health of your heart. Eating a balanced, healthy diet is the first step to heart healthy eating. This is not only about what you cannot eat, but about what you can and should eat. In fact, heart disease research has shown that adding heart-saving foods is just as important as cutting back on others. Key factors in the American Heart Association’s dietary guidelines include eating a variety of foods (including plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grain products to get a balance of nutrition) and choosing a diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
As a foundation to understanding heart-healthy eating, it is necessary to understand some things about cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is essential for life. Some of the cholesterol in our bodies comes from food (dietary cholesterol), but your body makes the majority of blood cholesterol. If there is too much blood cholesterol, there is a chance that cholesterol will build up or form plaque on the walls of the blood vessels and, in time, even clog them. The narrowing of the blood vessels due to plaque accumulation can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. Cholesterol does not dissolve in the blood and therefore, has to be transported to and from the cells by special carriers called lipoproteins. Cholesterol is composed of several different lipoproteins. LDL (low density lipoprotein) is the “bad” cholesterol. This form of cholesterol can slowly build up on the inner walls of the arteries and can form plaque which may block the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. An optimal LDL level is less than 100, nearly optimal is 100 – 129, and a level between 130 and 150 is a borderline reading. A LDL level above 150 is considered a high risk for heart disease. HDL (high density lipoprotein) is the “good” cholesterol. Research indicates that HDL carries cholesterol away from the bloodstream and out of the body. A high level of HDL seems to protect against heart disease. A healthy level for men is greater that 40 mg/dL and for women, greater than 50 mg/dL. Triglycerides are the chemical form of fat that is found in foods as well as in our bodies. Stored fat in our body is made of triglycerides. Extra calories not used immediately for energy are converted to triglycerides and stored in fat cells. If your triglyceride levels are high, you need to lose weight if you are overweight and limit your consumption of sugar. A normal range of triglycerides is less than 150. A simple blood test from your doctor can provide information about these levels in your body.
Whether you need to reverse the effects of years of unhealthy eating or you simply want to fine-tune your present diet to increase overall health, following are some strategies to help you reach your goals. Once you know what foods to emphasize and what foods to limit or avoid, you can create meal plans to help keep you on track.
- Limit unhealthy fats and cholesterol and use unsaturated fats instead. Of all the possible dietary changes, limiting how much saturated fat and trans fat you eat is the most important step you can take to reduce your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of coronary artery disease. Saturated fats stimulate cholesterol production in the body. They are typically solid at room temperature and mostly found in animal products such as beef, pork, lamb, poultry skin, dairy products such as whole milk, some cheeses, stick butter and margarine, lard, and egg yolks. Trans fats increase the LDL levels in the blood. They come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils often found in fried foods, processed foods (crackers, mixes, etc.) and commercially baked foods. When you do use fat, choose unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). These fats are liquid at room temperature and include olive, corn, canola, and peanut oils. Avocados, walnuts, pecans, almonds, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds also contain unsaturated fats. Studies indicate that these fats may actually help lower total blood cholesterol levels. Remember, however, that moderation in fat intake is essential as all fats are high in calories. Only animal foods have cholesterol. Avoid high cholesterol foods like organ meats, fatty meats, egg yolks, whole milk, ice cream and cheese.
- Increase your fiber intake, especially soluble fiber. Soluble fiber helps to lower blood cholesterol levels in most individuals when added to the diet. Oat bran is the most talked about source of soluble fiber, but dry beans and peas, many vegetables and most fruits also contain soluble fiber.
- Choose low-fat protein sources. Lean meat, skinless poultry, fish, low-fat dairy products, and egg whites are some of the best sources of low-fat, low-cholesterol protein. It is strongly recommended that fish be included in the diet at least two times a week. Cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and lake trout are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids which may help to lower triglycerides in the blood and reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death. Legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) are also good sources of protein and contain less fat and no cholesterol.
- Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These foods are good sources of vitamins and minerals and are high in dietary fiber. Remember that soluble fiber can help lower blood cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Reduce salt intake. Research suggests that high sodium intake can be related to high blood pressure. A good target for healthy adults is to consume no more than 3000 mg of sodium per day. Low sodium diets may be planned at anywhere from 2000 mg – 500 mg per day. Read labels carefully and look for high sodium ingredients such as salt, sodium chloride, monosodium glutamate, or broth. Do not add salt to your food at the table or when cooking. Limit processed or pre-packaged foods since sodium is often used as a preservative.
- Practice moderation and balance. Don’t skip meals since skipping meals often leads to overeating. It is even recommended that you eat 5 – 7 small, balanced meals a day to control blood sugars, burn fat calories more efficiently, and regulate cholesterol levels. Knowing which foods to eat is important, but you also need to know how much food to consume. Learn what proper portion sizes are and keep track of the number of servings that you eat. Overeating can lead to excess calorie, fat, and cholesterol intake.
You now know what foods to incorporate into your diet and which ones to limit or leave out. Create daily menus using the guidelines above. Select foods for each meal and snack, emphasizing vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and limiting animal products and fatty foods. Watch your portion sizes and select a variety of foods to keep things interesting. As you utilize these principles, you will find that heart-healthy eating can be accomplished and can also be enjoyable. With forethought and planning, you can eat with your heart in mind, improving your overall health and reducing your risks for heart disease.