A heart healthy eating plan may help to reduce unhealthy blood cholesterol levels, help to manage high blood pressure and may be used as a prevention mechanism to lower overall risk for heart disease.
As with any healthy eating plan, eating a balanced diet of whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables and lean proteins is essential. Stick to a whole foods based diet, limiting your intake of processed foods.
The more often we can choose heart-healthy fats, the better. Think polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. In place of saturated fats, these unsaturated fats may help to lower cholesterol level. Saturated fat is found in animal-based foods. Your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels are most affected by saturated fats. Select meats with less marbling (fat) and the highest percent lean. Choose chicken without skin. Think about what you are snacking on; if you’re craving something crunchy, try veggies and hummus or unsalted nuts instead of chips and crackers. Substitute oils more often for butter (try vegetable, canola and olive oils) . Avoid trans fat. Trans fat has been shown to increases LDL-cholesterol levels. Trans fat is found in stick margarine, shortening, processed sweets and baked goods, some fried foods and packaged foods made with hydrogenated oils. Cholesterol should also be limited (200 mg per day or less). Too much cholesterol in our blood stream can damage arteries and clog up blood vessels. Food sources of cholesterol are egg yolks, meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy.
Fiber is another key player in supporting heart health. Fiber helps to slow digestion, aids in glucose control, and attaches to cholesterol-taking it out of the body. Aim for 20-30 g/day (increase slowly!). On a food label look for greater than 3 g fiber per serving. There are two types of fiber, insoluble and soluble. When thinking about insoluble fiber, think bulk (bran, seeds, skins). When thinking soluble fiber, think absorption (oatmeal, beans, apples, blueberries).
Sodium (salt) is challenging to limit in our highly processed food environment. Sodium helps us hold extra fluid in the body; this puts more work on our heart. Remember, sodium does not just come from the salt shaker; sodium is hiding in most of our processed foods, canned foods, condiments and sauces. When looking at a food label, take caution when the sodium content is greater than 300 mg per serving.
So, keep it simple! Eat whole foods more often, increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, be aware of hidden sodium and select lean proteins.
Whitney Gould-Cookson MS RD LD