Whether you’re curled up with a book or sprinting for a bus, your heart works hard for you – a healthy one beats 100,000 times and pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood daily. To help it do its job, and prevent heart disease, take stock of your diet.
“What you eat and how you prepare food can strongly affect your blood cholesterol, your blood pressure and the propensity for plaque to build up in your arteries over the long run,” says Lori Mosca, M.D., author of “Heart to Heart: A Personal Plan for Creating a Heart-Healthy Family.”
Considering that plenty of not-so-good-for-you foods are just a drive-through away, read on for the key nutrition rules that will help you eat to beat heart disease.
Target saturated and trans fats
To keep your arteries clear, cut down on saturated fat and trans fats. Both types raise your body’s level of “bad” LDL cholesterol, much more so than any cholesterol you get from food. When too much LDL cholesterol circulates in the bloodstream, it can slowly build up on the walls of arteries which feed your heart and brain, forming thick, hard plaque. Trans fats also lower “good” HDL cholesterol, making them doubly bad for your heart. HDL cholesterol is beneficial because it reduces plaque buildup by ushering excess LDL cholesterol away from artery walls and back to the liver, where it’s passed from the body.
Food Fix: The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5 to 6 percent of calories from saturated fat. For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fat. That’s about 13 grams of saturated fat per day. “Limit butter, vegetable shortening and lard in cooking,” says registered dietitian Bethany Thayer. Instead, use olive and canola oil, which both contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Because these healthy fats are still high in calories (120 calories per tablespoon), go easy to avoid weight gain, another risk factor for heart disease.
Other ways to trim saturated fat from your diet include drinking skim or low-fat milk and choosing lean meats and skinless poultry. Servings should be kept to about the size of your palm. You don’t need to avoid saturated fat entirely; still, the more plant-based your diet is, the better, especially if heart disease is in your family medical history.
Eat more whole grains
Whole-grain bread and cereals, as well as beans, barley and lentils, are good sources of vitamins A, B and E. These act as antioxidants, which may help neutralize free radicals, unstable oxygen molecules in the blood that may contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries. Whole grains are also “packed with fiber, which is potent in lowering LDL,” says nutrition researcher Wahida Karmally, DrPH, RD.
Food Fix: Choose whole grain cereal, such as instant or steel-cut oatmeal, and opt for whole grain bread as often as possible. Aim for at least three (one-ounce) servings of whole grains per day. To spot whole grain products, look for “whole” on the nutrition label, as in “whole wheat,” “whole corn” or “whole rye.” Also, check the fiber content. Look for foods with two or more grams of fiber per serving.
Pack in produce
Fruits and vegetables are filled with fiber, as well as beta-carotene and the antioxidant vitamins A and C. Some also contain folate, a B vitamin that may help reduce the amino acid homocysteine, high blood levels of which may be linked to an increased risk of heart attack. They’re also natural sources of plant sterols. Aim for two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables each day. Less than a third of us eat enough produce to protect our hearts.
Food Fix: Top off your morning cereal or yogurt with fruit and add it to homemade breads, cakes and cookies. Add vegetables to sauces, stews, meat loaf, pizza and soup. “Store cut-up vegetables and fruit at eye level in the fridge so they’re the first thing you see when you open the door,” suggests Thayer.
Cut down on sugar
Excess sugar – more than six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons per day for men – has been linked to risk factors for heart disease, including obesity, high blood pressure, inflammation and elevated levels of triglycerides, a fat in the blood.
Food fix: With desserts, such as pudding or even your grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe, “cut the sugar in half and add orange or lemon zest or a teaspoon of vanilla, hazelnut, rum, caramel or almond extract,” says Jennifer Iserloh, chef and owner of skinnychef.com. Zest can emulate sweetness, and halving the amount of sugar won’t change a recipe’s texture or diminish its nutrient content. At 48 calories per tablespoon of sugar, you’ll save 768 calories per omitted cup.
Go fishing twice a week
Fish, especially cold-water fish like salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel and herring, are rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapaentenoic acid (EPA), heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce the rate of plaque buildup, decrease triglycerides and slightly lower blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends eating two fish meals per week. If you’re pregnant, the FDA recommends eating eight to 12 ounces of fish per week and focusing on those low in mercury, including shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish, cod, flatfish and haddock. Avoid tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.
Food Fix: Try adding an easy-to-make fish like salmon to your family’s weekly menu. If you just don’t like fish, try incorporating flaxseed oil. It’s a rich source of heart-healthy alpha-linolenic acid (LNA). One teaspoon of the oil a day is all you need to get a beneficial dose (1.5 grams). But since flaxseed oil breaks down with heat, don’t use it for cooking.
Develop a taste for dark chocolate
It contains flavonols – antioxidants in the flavonoid family that may increase blood flow in arteries, reduce the stickiness of blood platelets and lower blood pressure. One study found that people who consumed 1.6 ounces of high-flavonoid dark chocolate daily for two weeks experienced an eightfold increase in the ability of their arteries to dilate, which improves blood flow to the heart.
Food Fix: Even though it’s healthier than milk chocolate, dark chocolate is still a high-calorie treat. For occasional chocolate cravings or even just a small hit every day, “check the label for chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cocoa,” says cardiovascular researcher Mary B. Engler, Ph.D.