Your diet, as most people know, is a big component of healthy living. There’s even much truth to the idiom, “You are what you eat!” However, when it comes to living with chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, having the right diet becomes even more important, as the foods you eat can make a huge difference not only in the symptoms you experience day to day, but also in the way your chronic conditions progress over time. What this means is that with the right diet—aka the heart healthy diet— you can take control of your health by helping to slow or even reverse your chronic conditions. When it comes to heart disease, being on a heart-healthy diet can protect you against further narrowing of your heart’s blood vessels and in turn help prevent further complications such as heart attack and strokes.
In this article I will discuss what types of foods make up a heart healthy diet. In a subsequent article, I will cover the essentials of a specific component of heart healthy eating–the low sodium diet.
The Heart Healthy Diet: An Overview
So why should you eat a heart healthy diet? If you already have heart disease, the two main goals of a heart healthy diet is to stop the worsening of your heart disease and to decrease your risk of complications (such as a heart attack or a stroke). If you do not have heart disease, the aim is to keep your heart healthy and functioning well for many, many years to come.
In general, a heart healthy diet is one that:
1. Lowers LDL (your ‘bad cholesterol’…think “L as in Lousy”)
2. Raises HDL (your ‘good cholesterol’…think “H as in Healthy”)
3. Lowers blood pressure
4. Lowers blood sugar
5. Helps with maintaining a healthy weight.
More specifically, in terms of the foods you eat, this means:
1. Avoiding foods that are high in saturated and trans fats (helps your LDL level)
2. Eating foods that are good in beneficial fat (such as omega-3 fats, which helps your HDL level)
3. Limiting sugary foods
4. Avoiding salty foods and those high in sodium (helps blood pressure)
Tips to Get You Started
When it comes to the heart healthy diet, there are many ways to decrease bad fats while keeping food tasty! While the best way to see how much bad fats are in your foods is to check the Nutrition Facts label, here are some general rules your doctor would recommend following:
Practical tips for eating less saturated/trans fats:
➢ Chose Lean: Choose lean meats and poultry. Trim visible fat from meat and remove skin from poultry.
➢ Stick with Liquid Fats: Cook with small amounts of vegetable oil instead of butter, lard, or margarine.
➢ Go Skim: Switch from whole milk products to low-fat or skim milk products.
➢ Grill it Up! Try grilling, broiling, poaching, or roasting instead of frying.
➢ Try Healthier Alternatives: Try peanut butter on toast instead of butter.
➢ Stay away from “Bad Fats”: Eat fewer baked goods made with stick margarine or shortening. Look for trans fat or “ partially hydrogenated oil ” on the label!
Practical tips for eating less sugar:
➢ Choose Liquids Wisely: Choose water or sugarless drinks instead of fruit juices and sodas.
➢ Tame the Sweet Tooth: Limit candy, sugary gum, and other sweets
➢ Start Your Day Right: Choose breakfast cereals with little or no added sugar.
➢ Go Fresh: Have fresh fruit for dessert instead of cakes, cookies, and pies.
➢ Say “No” to Syrup: Choose canned fruit packed in water or 100% juice instead of syrup.
➢ Dip lightly: Use smaller amounts of condiments because sugar is often added to salad dressings, ketchup, etc.
So there you go! No matter what your eating habits are now, be encouraged to take the first step to heart healthy eating. Bon Appétit!
*The information presented in “Heart Healthy Diet: Practical Tips on Getting Started” can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.
Want to keep this information handy for future reference?
Below is a printer-friendly handout with all these tips…all on one page!