Simple diet changes are good for your ticker

February is Heart Month

The mention of a “heart-healthy diet” probably raises thoughts of fat-free, unsatisfying portions, but a smart approach to a heart-friendly lifestyle is built around balance - not deprivation. You have the power to improve your heart health by focusing on your intake in four key areas: healthy fats, high fiber, lots of plants, and sodium. 

Choose healthy fats

There are different types of fat: some are healthy and some should be limited.

  • Saturated fat is found mostly in animal products like butter, full-fat dairy, and high-fat meat and cheese, but also in tropical oils like coconut and palm oil. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total daily calorie intake. (If you consume 2,000 calories per day, that’s no more than 22 grams of saturated fat.)
  • Trans fat is another type of unhealthy fat that increases bad LDL cholesterol and decreases good HDL cholesterol. Unlike saturated fat, there is no acceptable amount of trans fat to include in your diet; they should be avoided altogether. Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the major source of artificial trans fat in the food supply, are no longer Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Therefore, PHOs are no longer added to foods, but some do still exist.
  • Unsaturated fat is the healthy kind that you want to make up the majority of your fat intake. Unsaturated fat may be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Omega-3 fatty acids are a particularly beneficial type of unsaturated fat that may reduce inflammation throughout the body. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, cod, and lake trout, as well as in nuts and seeds. Aim for two servings (totaling eight ounces) of fatty fish per week.

Increase fiber intake

Fiber helps reduce your risk of coronary heart disease. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, more than 90 percent of women and 97 percent of men do not get the recommended 25-35 grams of fiber in their daily diets. Fiber can be found in whole grains like quinoa, oats, and whole grain bread; beans and peas; and all fruits and vegetables. When reading nutrition facts on labels, choose foods with at least three grams of fiber per serving. For example, a half cup of navy beans contains nine grams of fiber. On the other hand, one cup of white rice contains only a single gram of fiber.

Eat mostly plants

Strive to fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables at lunch and dinner. Starchy vegetables like white potatoes, yams, and corn should be limited to just one quarter of your plate. Your goal should be to consume at least five servings of vegetables and fruits every day.  When choosing fruits and vegetables, focus on variety by eating as many different colors as possible from deep green to orange to red. Remember: canned and frozen vegetables are an affordable option that have a long shelf life!

Limit sodium

Excess sodium intake can contribute to high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium to 1500-2300 milligrams per day or approximately 500 milligrams per meal. However, sodium is found in most of the foods we buy, especially processed foods. For example, one can of condensed soup contains 1000-1200 mg of sodium and just two ounces of deli roast beef contains around 400 mg.

The FDA reports that, despite what many people think, most dietary sodium (over 70 percent of it) comes from packaged and prepared foods— not from salt added when cooking or eating. This shows the importance of reading the nutrition facts on labels when purchasing food. Look for products with 140 mg of sodium or less per serving. Prepare your own food when you can and limit packaged sauces, mixes, and “instant” products (including flavored rice, instant noodles, and ready-made pasta.)

Thanks to Amanda Pratt, RD, LD, for these Heart Month dietary tips!