Eating healthy and taking care of your heart are hot topics these days. Pick up any health magazine, and odds are, you’ll come across plenty of tips for keeping your ticker in top shape. There is a lot of information out there and rightfully so— according to the American Heart Association, heart disease is still the No. 1 killer of adults in the United States. While some risk factors for heart disease cannot be changed, such as your family medical history, there is plenty you can do to help lower your risk. Studies have shown that eating a healthy diet can result in a 30% lower risk for heart disease.
Common Sense Shopping
When you’re trying to determine what’s heart-healthy, your best bets are the foods your body can recognize. Bestselling author Michael Pollan put it best in his book, “In Defense of Food,” when he advised, “Don’t eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” As often as possible, try to get your meat and produce at a local farmers market and from vendors who grew their food with organic practices. In Atlanta, we are fortunate to have Farmers & Artisan Market and the city-famous DeKalb Farmers Market. But, while delicious, these options aren’t always convenient or in season and we have to make do with big-box grocers.
So for your more day-to-day food needs, Lisa Washington, who runs the healthy food blog Set the Table with Love, has this advice about navigating the grocery store. “You walk through the doors and the first thing you see is the produce department. This is where you want to spend most of your time. The colors you see are the vitamins and nutrients that keep your heart happy.” According to MyPlate, a health resource from the US Department of Agriculture, you should aim to have one to two cups of fruit and one to three cups of vegetables per day.
Another tip Washington offers is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Here is where you will find the majority of your heart-healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean proteins, and nuts and seeds. If you do drift into the inner aisles, beware of foods that claim to be heart-healthy or all-natural. Putting together the puzzle of what to eat and what to eliminate for a healthier lifestyle your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
First of all, in order to make those claims, food has to have a box or can for the claim to be printed on. Likely these are simply marketing ploys, and the packaging is your first tip that the food is processed. When dealing with processed foods, you can’t trust the claims. Instead, you have to be an educated consumer and learn what those labels and packages are really telling you
Deciphering the Labels
Fancy ingredients and almost unpronounceable chemical names show up on the labels of most of our packaged and processed foods. Here’s what to look for:
• Serving size. Often, multiple servings will be contained in one package, so you need to know how much you’re actually eating.
• Percent daily value. This term simply means how much of your daily nutrients the food provides. For example, a snack with 2.5 grams of fat may fulfill 11%of your daily recommended fat intake. Keep an eye on these percentages. To be considered heart-healthy, foods should be low in total fat, cholesterol and sodium. If any of those percentages are creeping up around 20%, steer clear of that food.
• Beneficial nutrients. For certain nutrients, it’s good to see a higher percentage. The FDA recommends plenty of calcium, dietary fiber, potassium and vitamin D.
• Ingredients. On food labels, the first few ingredients listed are the most prevalent in that food. If you see sugar or high fructose corn syrup high on the ingredient list—skip it.
Recently, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NELA) made changes to the standard nutrition label. As of Jan. 1, 2021, all food manufacturers are required to use the new labeling practices. These changes include more prominently displaying the number of calories per serving, adjusting serving sizes, requiring manufacturers to include the total amount of added sugars, and making changes to the daily percentage values of nutrients. Knowing what’s in your food and how much of it can help you make better food choices overall. For a heart-healthy diet, the American Heart Association recommends you maintain a diet that is low in sodium, added sugars and trans fats. The bottom line is to use your common sense. If you can’t pronounce or understand the ingredients on a food’s label, don’t eat that food. Instead, try to concentrate on whole vegetables and fruits that don’t have labels at all.
Defining Fad Diets
Once you know what to look for in your food, it’s a matter of sticking to good habits and getting active to help keep your heart healthy. And you won’t see the lifelong results you want through fad diets. While diets can help with weight loss or controlling certain conditions like diabetes or celiac disease, the problem with most diets is that they exclude large groups of nutritionally important foods.
For example, carbs are a common group to cut among fad diets like keto, paleo and gluten-free. And while refined grains do lose a lot of their nutritional value, whole grains remain an important part of a healthy diet, according to the American Heart Association. Whole grains provide fiber (which helps control cholesterol) and important nutrients like iron and vitamin B. You can also encounter problems with diets that focus too much on one group of foods. The Atkins diet promotes eating lots of protein and that also means lots of fats. And while we discussed that there are good fats, the majority of those come from plants, not meat, so you can end up eating too many saturated and trans fats, which are bad for your health.
Instead of going on a set diet, the better option is to just eat healthier. And if heart health is one of your primary goals, the American Heart Association recommends following these guidelines for eating heart-healthy:
• Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables
• Choose whole grains (oats, quinoa, bulgur) over refined grains (wheat flour, white rice)
• Eat low-fat dairy products
• For meat proteins, go with skinless poultry and fish
• Use nontropical vegetable oils
The Facts on Fat
Fat has long been a topic of discussion in the nutrition and diet world. From low-fat foods promoted in the ’90s to fad diets like keto that promote eating more of certain fats, it can be hard to tell up from down. And the truth is, it’s complicated.
There are three types of fats:
• Trans Fats. These are your bad fats. While naturally occurring in animal products like meat and dairy, the larger portion of trans fats came from a manufacturing process called hydrogenation, which added hydrogen to vegetable fats, turning them from liquid to solid at room temperature. Trans fats were mostly phased out by the FDA in 2018 but still can occur in the process of making fried and baked foods.
• Saturated Fats. These fats are OK, in moderation. These fats are naturally solid at room temperature (unlike trans fats, which are altered to be in a solid-state). Common examples are bacon grease, coconut oil, cheese and whole-dairy products. The American Heart Association recommends that only 5-6% of your daily calories should come from saturated fat, as too much can increase bad cholesterol and raise the risk of heart disease.
• Unsaturated Fats. There are good fats and you can tell them apart from the other two because they are liquid
at room temperature. Unsaturated fats are mostly found in plant-based sources like canola, olives, avocados,
nuts and seeds. They can also be found in sources of fish, which contains very healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends that at least 10-12% of daily calories come from unsaturated fat.
Take the First Steps
For the majority of us, making major changes to our day-to-day is not going to be easy—we are creatures of habit. It’s better to start with small changes that you can easily incorporate into your every day and go from there.
Washington suggests trying these easy food changes:
- Use your produce to make heart-healthy smoothies for breakfast. Think about adding avocados, blueberries and frozen cherries to your smoothie.
- Have a big salad for lunch. Add grilled salmon. Sprinkle sunflower seeds and walnuts to add crunch. For vegan options, you can add grilled tofu, roasted chickpeas and cubes of roasted sweet potato.
- Make homemade trail mix using oats, nuts and seeds.
- Look for recipes that incorporate healthy fats, that are low in sodium and are whole-food based. In other words, eat foods that are not processed. Washington’s rule of thumb is: lean, clean and full of flavor.
Whether you already do one or some of these, make sure to arm yourself with the knowledge and know-how to help you navigate any heart health woes. If you need extra guidance, seek out the help of a nutritionist or your family physician to make sure you are making the right choices for your diet and your heart.Keep Heart-
Healthy Eating Easy
Meal delivery can be an easy way to keep your kitchen stocked with healthy meals. And while there are plenty of options to choose from, we always prefer to keep things local. Here are some Atlanta-based companies to keep you fed:
- Eat Clean Bro is on a mission to deliver fresh, never-frozen meals to your doorstep. You can select delicious meals with no subscriptions or meal plans, just the food you want. Pretty cool, bro. www.eatcleanbro.com Heart-healthy options: Clean burger, buffalo shrimp, red pepper salmon, Chuck’s turkey taco bowl
- Fresh ‘n Fit Cuisine has you covered for breakfast, lunch, dinner and any snacking in between. They also use organic meats and source much of their produce from local farmers. www.freshnfitcuisine.com. Heart-healthy options: Honey-roasted turkey with cranberry chutney over pecan cornbread stuffing, sage-crusted chicken over butternut squash gratin topped with herb gravy.
- Atlanta Meal Prep lets you build meals to your taste by pairing entrées and sides from their wide (and tasty) menu. www.atlantamealprep.com
Heart-healthy options: Cajun pan-roasted chicken breast, lemon and herb-roasted pork loin, Japanese sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas
Lisa Washington, Life & Wellness Coach, www.setthetablewithlove.com
American Heart Association, www.heart.org
Piedmont Heart Institute, www.piedmont.org/heart