The first step in preventing heart disease starts with what you eat. Many people are aware that certain foods (food high in fat, high in salt, etc.) can increase the risk of heart disease, but it’s still tough to change eating habits. Changing your diet is best done in small steps. By making one change at a time, you can increase the odds that you will achieve better lifelong eating habits. Here are a few simple tips to get you started.
1. Eat more fruits and vegetables: In addition to being a great source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, many fruits and vegetables contain substances that may help to prevent cardiovascular disease. Choosing to snack on a carrot stick instead of a potato chip will help you to avoid eating high-fat foods. Keep veggies washed and cut (or purchase pre-cut options) in the fridge for a quick snack. Keep your fruit bowl filled and in a location you can see it; that way, you can grab an apple on the way out in the morning instead of opting for a fast-food alternative. And meat doesn’t have to be the center of your dinner; consider vegetable stir fry dishes and similar options when planning your next meal.
2. Whole grains are the best choice: Whole grains are a great source of fiber and other nutrients like potassium that all play an important role in heart health. Including whole grains in your diet is one of the simpler ways to improve your diet; just substitute a whole grain option for a refined grain product when you are at the store getting groceries. A turkey sandwich on 100% whole wheat bread is much better for you and tastes better than one on white. There are also many whole grains out there a lot of people are unaware of such as oats, wild rice, and farro.
3. Know what to avoid: Foods that are high in saturated and trans fat raise your blood cholesterol level and can increase your risk of coronary artery disease. The easiest way to reduce intake of these fats is to limit the amount of solid fats — like butter, lard, and margarine — when you are cooking. Monounsaturated fats like olive oil are better choices for heart health. Choose leaner cuts of meat (less than 10% fat) for another way to limit saturated fats. You should also check labels when you purchase groceries. Products that contain some trans fats will have the phrase “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list, and even foods that may be labeled “reduced fat” may contain this unhealthy form of trans fat.
In addition to watching out for fats, be sure to limit your salt intake. High sodium intake can contribute to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The Department of Agriculture recommends that healthy adults have no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day. One easy way to reduce your sodium intake is to watch the amount of salt you add to food your cook or while at the table, but it’s also important to remember that much of the salt in your diet comes directly from the foods that you’re eating before you add anything on top. If you like the convenience of canned soups or pre-made meals, look for reduced sodium options or make your own! You can even freeze pre-portioned soups or meals for later use.
4. Plan your meals ahead and remember your portion sizes: Planning ahead makes sticking to your heart-healthy diet easier. Create daily menus that emphasize vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Choose leaner protein options like chicken or fish, and limit your intake of salty and high-fat foods. After you’ve made a meal prepared with heart health in mind, be sure to watch your portion sizes. The USDA offers some tips to understand what proper serving sizes really are. Visit their webpage to learn how much you really need to eat.
Variety is the spice of life. Mix it up and seek out new ways to prepare fun meal options. This will help to ensure appropriate nutrient intake and make your meals more interesting.
Remember: what’s important is eating healthy the majority of the time. Don’t deny yourself a treat every now and then. If indulgence becomes the rule instead of the exception, though, you’ll need to work with your doctor to find a way to keep your diet on track and stay heart healthy!