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 number one 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.
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 from vendors who grew the food with organic practices. If farmers markets are not an option for you, registered dietitian Rachel Brandeis has advice about navigating the grocery store. "Shop the perimeter and utilize the inside aisles sparingly." This will help you stick to foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If you do drift into the inner aisles, beware of foods that claim to be heart healthy, all natural or low fat. 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. "Reading food labels can be tricky, as recommendations vary depending on the individual," says Gretchen Earwood, registered dietitian with Kaiser Permanente of Georgia.
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 percent 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 percent, 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, vitamin A and vitamin C.
- 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.
Earwood says, once you review the serving size, reading your food label can help ensure your diet is low in saturated fat, low in sodium, high in fiber and high in vitamins and minerals. "Limiting the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease, while reducing sodium in the diet can help prevent increases in blood pressure."
A big culprit to monitor on your food label is the presence and percentage of trans fats. "Trans fats are produced during a process called hydrogenation that changes liquid oils with unsaturated fats into saturated fats," Earwood says. "In a recent preliminary decision, the FDA determined that partially hydrogenated oils, or trans fats, are no longer recognized as safe. Trans fats can raise your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower your good cholesterol (HDL)."
Earwood says sometimes companies advertise food items as having "no trans fats" per serving. This means, as long as you eat one serving, you will get less than half a gram of trans fat. "However, most people consume more than one serving of foods, such as vegetable oil spreads, at one time," Earwood warns. "So, the better option is to read the ingredients list and avoid anything with 'partially hydrogenated oils' as an ingredient."
Brandeis says, as saturated and trans fats are the main culprits in terms of pulmonary artery disease, it's important to move toward a plant-based diet. "Limit processed and packaged foods. Limit fatty meats. Sub out unhealthy fats for healthy fats," she says, like those found in avocados and nuts. "You need to find an eating plan that works for you, something not too rigid, and something you can stick to for a long period of time. It's a lifestyle change."
Another factor to keep in mind, outside of the food you eat, is your family medical history. "Research shows having one relative, such as a father or mother, with a heart attack under age 55 increases your risk by 33 percent, while having two relatives increases risk by 50 percent," says Saira Gillani, ND of Natural Health Atlanta. "If you do have a strong family history of heart attacks, it's in your best interest to make sure your blood pressure is under control and get your cholesterol checked frequently."
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 life-long results you want through fad diets.
Registered dietitian Sarah Shanahan of Good Measure Meals says fad diets eliminate major food groups and are difficult to follow. "You can pick out negatives and positives from each fad diet, but it doesn't mean that, as a whole, the diet is going to provide you all the nutrients you need to have a healthy diet," she says.
Experts break down the popular diets and let you know what to look out for when keeping your heart in mind:
- Gluten-Free: "It's not indicated for heart health. Gluten-free is for people who have a true gluten intolerance or have reactions," Brandeis says. "It's not designed for healthy people who want to jump on the bandwagon. You can actually do yourself a disservice. It's low in dietary fiber and whole grain, which are cardio protective."
- Sugar-Free: "Following a sugar-free diet will not necessarily keep your heart healthy," Earwood says. "The diet may help reduce triglycerides, which impact your heart. However, if triglycerides are elevated, sugar could be one of several causes. Consumption of fat, alcohol and other nutrients may need to be adjusted to bring triglycerides down to a healthy range."
- Paleo: "This diet is very low-carb and low-grain based," Brandeis says. "For a healthy heart, you want to limit meats and red meats. If someone came in to my office and had pulmonary troubles, I would not recommend Paleo. Meats are still high in saturated fat. You need a well balanced, high fiber, low animal product diet."
- Atkins: "This diet eliminates grains that provide us with fiber, and fiber helps lower cholesterol," Shanahan says. Earwood adds that this diet works for quick weight loss but is unsustainable long term. "In terms of heart health, it is probably the worst diet overall due to intentional high saturated fat intake. "
If you are looking to make adjustments in your diet without cutting out necessary nutrients, Shanahan says to keep this in mind: "We still do need fat. It's important for development," she says. "We want to focus on unsaturated fat, which comes from plants. It's important to eat less animal products and focus on plant products. Unsaturated fat comes from fatty fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocados and more. It helps boost your good cholesterol levels."
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. Shanahan says to start small. "Take it slow. Pick one thing you can do easily. If it's switching butter to olive oil, it's heart healthier."
Certified Health and Wellness Coach Yosetty Nunez offers these tips to get you moving toward a healthier heart:
- Know your numbers, family history and risks
- Eat a plant-based diet
- Be active and get regular exercise doing something you love
- Reduce stress
- Keep a medical and gratitude journal
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.
Rachel Brandeis, MS, RD - www.rachelrd.com
Gretchen Earwood, RD - Kaiser Permanente of Georgia, www.kp.org
Saira Gillani, ND - Natural Health Atlanta, www.naturalhealthatlanta.com
Sarah Shanahan, RD - Good Measure Meals, www.goodmeasuremeals.com
Yosetty Nunez - Certified Health and Wellness Coach, www.yosetty-nunez.healthcoach1.integrativenutrition.com