February is heart health month across the country. It’s the perfect time of year to double down on your New Year’s resolutions and make heart health a priority for you and your family for the rest of the year.
Most folks know that they should engage in some form of daily exercise to keep their heart pumping, but many don’t realize the significant impact that nutrition can have on their heart health. We would like to share 5 tidbits of knowledge to get you going on a more heart-friendly way of eating.
Make leafy greens a part of your everyday diet.
Leafy greens contain fiber, vitamins and minerals that are a powerhouse combination for heart health. The vitamin K and naturally occurring nitrates in greens boost arterial health, while fiber helps to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. You don’t have to only chomp on kale, either. If a bowl of kale salad is not your thing, baby greens are more delicate in texture and mild in flavor. If you aren’t a fan of dark leafy greens in general, start with iceberg and romaine lettuce in salads, then gradually mix in small amounts of spinach, arugula, kale, swiss chard and other colorful greens over time. Remember, your palate will adjust if you give it a chance! If you are really struggling to get your greens in, try adding just one small handful of baby spinach into your favorite smoothie - you won’t even notice it’s there!
Substitute with whole grains when possible.
Grains are the seeds of grass-like plants/cereals such as corn, rice and wheat, as well as the seeds of non-grass-like plants such as buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth. The seeds of these plants are made up of 3 parts:
Bran: the hard outer shell that contains fiber, minerals and antioxidants, endosperm: contains mainly carbohydrates that help feed a newly planted seed germ: the inner layer that contains vitamins, minerals and protein.
Whole grains contain all 3 parts of the grain while refined grains (think white bread, pasta, many cereals) have had the germ and bran removed. If you were paying attention above, you’ll know that by removing that germ and bran, the fiber, protein, most vitamins and minerals are lacking in refined grains. Whole grain foods include oatmeal, brown rice, whole rye, wild rice, bulgur, buckwheat, barley, spelt, quinoa, sorghum and millet. Foods such as 100% whole grain breads, whole grain pastas and whole grain cereals are heart healthy foods that still contain all the nutrients from all 3 parts of the grain. Whole grains support your heart health because they contain fiber that helps to reduce the amount of cholesterol you absorb from your food, leading to lower blood cholesterol levels. Whole grain foods also house B-vitamins and important minerals.
How do you know if a food is a whole grain? Look at the ingredient list. If the first ingredient listed is “whole grain….” (ex: whole grain wheat flour, whole grain oats, whole grain semolina flour) then you’ve found a whole grain food! A word of advice: if you and your family are eating a lot of ‘white’ products, ease into whole grain alternatives slowly. Start with things like rice, bread and breakfast cereals first, then swap crackers, pretzels and pastas out later.
Increase the amount of healthy fats in your diet.
Not all fats are created equally. If you eat a diet heavy in red meat and other animal fats, you aren’t doing your heart health any favors. Animal fats (like the fat from meat, poultry, pork and dairy products) are the primary source of cholesterol in our diets. Moreover, animal fat contains saturated fat, which is a known contributor to heart disease. Substituting a vegetarian option or a fatty fish for your land-dwelling protein on some days of the week will help to reduce your risk of heart disease. Fatty fish contain more unsaturated fats, such as Omega -3 fatty acids (aka: healthy fats) and lack the higher levels of saturated fat and cholesterol found in red meat, chicken and eggs. Examples of fatty fish include: salmon, tuna, sardines, bluefish and mackerel. But beware: shellfish like shrimp, lobster and crab contain high levels of cholesterol. That means that when it comes to heart health, you need to focus on fish that swim.
If you aren’t a fan of seafood, nuts, nut butters, seeds and avocados are a great source of healthier fats. Use plant-based oils like olive and avocado oil in cooking and use flaxseed oil and nut oils in cold meal prep like salads. You can also consider adding ground flaxseeds and ground chia seeds to your smoothie as an easy way to add a heart healthy nutrition punch to this favorite beverage.
Keep Track of Your Sodium Intake
The American Heart Association recommends that people consume no more than 2300mg of sodium daily, and that those adults with known heart disease risk factors aim for no more than 1500mg of sodium daily. Because more than 70% of Americans’ sodium intake comes from packaged, prepared and restaurant foods, one way to keep a check on daily sodium intake is to focus on eating fruits, vegetables, lean animal proteins, fish, whole grains, legumes, and unsalted nuts. By preparing these foods yourself, you will be able to control how much salt is added to each meal and snack consumed.
When including packaged foods in your diet, here are sodium-related terms you might see on food packages:
- Sodium-free – Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving and contains no sodium chloride
- Very low sodium – 35 milligrams or less per serving
- Low sodium – 140 milligrams or less per serving
- Reduced (or less) sodium – At least 25 percent less sodium per serving than the usual sodium level
- Light (for sodium-reduced products) – If the food is “low calorie” and “low fat” and sodium is reduced by at least 50 percent per serving
- Light in sodium – If sodium is reduced by at least 50 percent per serving
Finally, when eating out, ask for sauces on the side and for low sodium seasoning options. This way, you can control the amount of sodium being added to your dish while still enjoying a meal out with family and friends.
Look for the Heart-Check Certification from the American Heart Association
Next time you are grocery shopping, start looking for the American Heart Association’s Heart Check mark on food packaging to identify which packaged foods are more heart healthy. Only foods that meet the specific nutrient requirements set forth by the AHA are able to carry the coveted logo. You can find foods in any section of the grocery store that have this label, from breakfast cereals and beverages to the dairy cooler and freezer sections. Tip: some companies try to add a knock-off logo, so look for the AHA seal with the Heart-Check logo on it.
We hope that this nutrition knowledge will steer you in the right direction toward better heart health. Whether you’re managing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, low energy levels or are simply not feeling your best, we’re here to provide guidance, insight, and support. Reach out to get in touch with questions or to schedule a nutrition consult today.