By Marcie Fredenburg
A quick Google search of “heart-healthy diet” instantly unleashes millions of results, a dizzying array of do’s and don’ts, multi-colored pyramids and sometimes conflicting advice on how to nourish your way to a healthier heart. It’s all at once encouraging and discouraging — plenty of detailed information, but way more than anyone could possibly digest and put into action on their own.
As a registered dietitian who confers every day with cardiovascular patients, I’ve seen that dazed and confused look in the eyes of many, and I’ve made it my mission to simplify the search for heart-healthy eating solutions. Eating right is the single most important thing you can do to stay heathy. Regular physical activity is a close, hand-in-hand second, but what you eat truly defines your health. Healthy food choices can reduce your risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke, as well as risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
How do you cut through the clutter to find the right diet for you? What follows is a handful of get-started suggestions for narrowing your search.
– Let fruits and vegetables dominate your plate.
Before you even land on a specific diet, get started with the basics. Fill half your plate with vegetables. Fill another quarter plate with whole grains and the last quarter with a lean protein, perhaps one that’s plant-based. Enjoy colorful fresh fruit for dessert. A closer internet search of the DASH and Mediterranean diets will give you more ideas on these plate portions.
– Minimize meats, feast on fish.
Shifting to heart-healthy proteins, especially fish, can help reduce risk factors of heart disease. If you eat poultry, it should be skinless. Red meats and pork should be lean, trimmed of fat and used sparingly. The American Heart Association encourages us to eat at least two servings a week of baked or grilled, preferably oily, fish like tuna and salmon, which are high in omega 3 acids.
– Go for grains that are whole.
Studies have shown that higher consumption of whole grains helps protect us against heart disease. Unlike refined or processed grains, such as white rice and flour, which remove fiber and other nutrients, whole grains include all the nutrient-packed parts of the original. Fiber is important for healthy bowel function and soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar.
– Beware the trio of sugar, salt and fat.
Those are three main ingredients processed food manufacturers (and even home cooks) use to make food taste tastier, even if it’s not always healthy. One of the tricks of the trade is to lower one ingredient — let’s say the fat content — call it “low-fat,” then increase the sugar and/or salt content to please the palate. On their own, and especially together, sugar, salt and trans fats can be bad for your health, triggering many of the risk factors associated with heart disease. Reduce your intake of processed and restaurant foods, which account for the bulk of those ingredients in our diets, and use them sparingly at home.
– Go for the healthy fats.
Avoid trans fats and limit saturated fats. As an alternative to red meat, choose plant-based proteins such as nuts, seeds and legumes. Choose olive oil instead of butter or coconut oil. Read ingredient list for trans-fat content and avoid foods with hydrogenated fat.
– Get professional nutrition counseling.
Making healthy choices is the first step for most people. Those with risk factors for heart disease (high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes) might benefit from nutrition counseling. It’s covered by most insurers.
Marcie Fredenburg, R.D., L.D.N., is a registered dietitian with the Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center at Berkshire Medical Center.
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