Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease accounts for 1 out of 7 deaths in America. It kills about 1,100 Americans everyday which equates to about one person dying from heart disease every 84 seconds. Heart disease is preventable and to some degree reversible. Diet and lifestyle are the main ways to prevent heart disease yet many people do not opt for these changes.
What are heart healthy foods?
The term ‘heart healthy food’ is used widely these days but its meaning is not always fully understood. Heart-healthy foods help to prevent or the risk factors that contribute to heart disease. It also minimizes the strain on the heart and does not disrupt the normal functioning of the heart. With ongoing advances in medical science, foods that are considered to be heart-healthy has changed to some degree in the past few decades.
Read more on how to reverse heart disease.
Types of Foods That Are Heart Healthy
There are many different foods that could fall under the heart-healthy banner. However, the three main characteristics that all of these foods have in common relates to its fat, calorie, glycemic index and fiber content. By understanding these basic characteristics a person can make healthier dietary choices without having to adhere to a strict eating plan that may be unpalatable and restrictive.
We all know that fats are considered to be bad for the heart but heart-healthy foods are not entirely about fats. Firstly there are ‘good’ fats and ‘bad’ fats. Heart-healthy foods should have little to none of these ‘bad’ fats like saturated and trans fats even if it does not have ‘good’ fats such as unsaturated fats. Not only are fats high in calories which contribute to obesity but it also plays a role in atherosclerosis which causes narrowing of the artery walls.
Read more on cholesterol-fighting foods.
Another important characteristic of ‘heart-healthy foods’ is that it should not be abundant in refined carbohydrates. The reason for this is that refined carbohydrates are high in calories for small portion sizes and are often high glycemic index (GI). The calorie content and glycemic index contribute to excessive weight gain which in turn is a major contributing factor to heart disease.
Both soluble and insoluble fiber have benefits for heart healthy. Soluble fiber dissolves in the fluid within the bowels and can attach to fats thereby preventing it from being absorbed. Insoluble fiber bulks up in the gut and helps to reduce food intake thereby reducing excessive calorie consumption which leads to obesity. These are just some of the benefits of fiber when it comes to a healthy heart.
Read more on fiber in foods.
Foods To Eat and Avoid
Fruits and Vegetables
Both fruits and vegetables are meet most of the criteria for being a heart-healthy food. Apart from the fat, fiber and calorie content, fruit and vegetables are also packed with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and phytochemicals which are antioxidants. Eating fruits and vegetables raw or partially cooked helps to retain the nutrients but it is important to clean it thoroughly before consuming.
However, too much of a good thing can be bad and this is no different when it comes to fruit and vegetables. It is important not to overdo the fruits and vegetables which can exceed the advisable daily calorie intake. Similarly some fruits and vegetables should be limited when it comes to heart health. Reduce the intake of fried fruits and vegetables, fruits with added sugar or syrup and vegetables in creamy sauces.
Not only are whole grains high in fiber but it also contains other nutrients that can be beneficial to the heart. Furthermore whole grains will limit blood glucose elevation in short periods of time and many whole grain foods are therefore medium to low glycemic index (GI). It is important to ensure that cooked wholegrain foods are prepared in a heart-healthy way like baking rather than frying.
Once again it is important to take calorie count into consideration when it comes to wholegrains. With some whole grain cooked foods like bread and pasta, even a few extra slices or a larger helping can push the calorie content above the daily limite. Any refining of a wholegrain can immediately change its characteristics and therefore its heart-healthy benefits. Beware of added salt, sugar and fats in cooked and baked wholegrain foods.
Fats and Oils
There is no need to avoid fats since the body needs it for various biochemical processes and structures. Rather the focus should be on the choice of fats. Some fats can even be beneficial for heart health by reducing the ‘bad fats’. Another benefit that is not often touted for heart health is that many people find fats satisfying and flavorsome. When ‘good fats’ are eaten in moderation it may help to limit snacking or overeating.
Food labels have to clearly indicate the saturated and trans fat content and it is important to stay away from these ‘bad’ fats. Fried foods and fatty meats are common sources of ‘bad’ fats in the diet. Since fat has more calories ounce-for-ounce than carbohydrates or proteins, even a moderate fat intake can surpass daily calorie content in the smallest of portions. It is therefore important to carefully monitor fat intake.
The following diet tips can help with formulating heart-healthy eating plan:
- Control meal portion sizes. Rather eat more small meals than fewer large meals. Aim for five meals a day – three larger meals and two snacks inbetween.
- Understand and study the calorie content in foods as well the daily calorie requirement based on age and gender. Men should not exceed 2,500 calories daily while the maximum for women is 2,000 calories.
- Beware of condiments like sugar, salt and sauces. Sugar is a refined carbohydrate and a contributor to obesity. Salt plays a role in high blood pressures. Sauces are often laden with fats, sugar and salt although it may not be detected by the taste buds.
- Choose low fat meats like salmon and turkey. In addition oily fish has omega-3 fatty acids which can be beneficial to heart health.
It is always advisable to consult with a medical doctor and registered dietitian for a heart-healthy diet plan.