It’s February, and that means it’s American Heart month! Despite all the talk about heart health, I think we honestly forget what a big deal Heart Disease is in this country. It is the number one cause of death in the United States. Numero Uno. That is not something to take lightly. Certainly we’ve taken steps to try and combat this epidemic, but yet heart disease remains the most likely cause of death of an individual in this country. According to the Heart Foundation, a person suffers a heart attack every 34 seconds. The heart-healthy message isn’t getting across.
The frustrating thing is, heart disease is entirely preventable, yet I have met countless people who seem to think it is just something you “get.” Although most will admit they could have eaten healthier or exercised a tad bit more, they perceive it to be mostly out of their control. This perception is not entirely their fault, however. Some doctors barely even mention diet or exercise (although some do, or refer to RDs, and kudos to them). In most cases, meds are dispensed and symptoms are monitored.
But that’s why I’m here. I’m here to tell you that number one, heart disease is preventable and reversible. Number two, there are a plethora of healthy foods you can eat to “treat” yourself to better health. Let’s visit a few categories.
Omega 3 fatty acids are heart healthy fats. They help lower LDL cholesterol and reduce overall inflammation in the body. Whenever there is inflammation there is a higher likelihood of oxidized LDL being deposited in the arteries. We need to keep LDL at healthy levels and decrease inflammation in the body. Omega 3 fats can help us do that. Where do we find them? Unfortunately Omega 3s are not prolific in the food supply, but there are some great foods rich in Omega 3s that you can start incorporating in your diet. Examples include fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines, grass fed beef, and plant based foods such as walnuts, flaxseed, and soy.
Other Healthy Fats
Besides Omega 3s, there are other healthy fats that make up a heart healthy diet. Unsaturated fats, such as those from olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados are great for the heart. Contrary to popular belief, saturated fats aren’t all that bad either. In fact, coconut oil, butter and eggs can be heart healthy choices as well, provided they are in moderation and part of a diet that avoids or limits refined carbohydrates. While in research we have seen saturated fats cause increases in LDL cholesterol, it’s actually diets high in refined carbohydrates (sweets, bread, pasta, etc) that lead to the dangerous, atherogenic type of LDL cholesterol that leads to heart disease. I’d prefer you give up the pastries before you give up the butter.
We all know fiber is healthy, but it is especially helpful for heart disease, especially when it replaces refined carbohydrates in the diet. One particular fiber, soluble fiber, is known for its ability to lower LDL cholesterol, but all fiber is helpful. High fiber foods are all of the whole grains and plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Foods that are specifically high in soluble fiber include nuts/seeds, oats, buckwheat, apples, pears, soy and legumes. Eat more of these foods. Eat less refined carbohydrates, especially those high in sugar.
Antioxidant rich foods are wonderful! Think of those plant based foods that are vibrant in color and full of flavor. That color and distinct taste are often a result of the phytochemicals, aka antioxidants. What do these antioxidants do for you? They help scavange free radicals so they aren’t left to do damage to your arteries or other organs. They essentially neutralize them. Since inflammation in the body tends to increase free radicals, antixodants are very important for heart disease. Good food choices? Colorful berries (think blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc), grapes, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, all types of vegetables, green tea, and even coffee. But this list is certainly not exhaustive. All plant foods have some sort of antioxidant component (and many of them work synergistically together), so eat a wide variety of plant based foods and you can’t go wrong.
Protein is obviously an essential part of our diet. While higher fat meats aren’t necessarily unhealthy if part of a balanced diet, they can lead to weight gain which is not what you want if at risk for heart disease. Lean protein therefore is ideal because it’s not typically excessive in calories and helps keep your blood glucose stable, thereby helping you maintain a healthy weight. Make sure to have some sort of protein source with each meal. Healthy options include lean chicken, pork, grass fed beef, seafood, organic soy/tofu, low sugar dairy products and nuts/seeds.
There we go. Those are the key components of a heart healthy diet. If you focus on the foods in these groups while simultaneously cutting out the refined carbohydrates (namely sugar), you will be on a good path towards better health. Seems easy enough, right?
But what if it’s not? As with most things on the internet, including this article, words on paper don’t exactly translate to actions at home. I totally get it. I can read all day about accounting on the internet but I’m not one who gets those concepts on my own. I need help, hence I have a book keeper! The same goes for diet. Don’t be ashamed if you have more questions. That’s why us Registered Dietitians are here.
The beauty of a visit with an RD is that we get to sit down with you for an hour (and sometimes even longer) to discuss and create the best diet for YOU. Unlike in a doctor’s office, you have time to ask all your questions and receive lengthy feedback. Often people are confused as to where to start, what are appropriate portion sizes, what are some good meal ideas, etc. We can walk through this with you and create a plan that will work for you and your lifestyle. While some are afraid, thinking of us as the “food police,” we should be though of instead as the “food guidance counselor.” We are not here to judge, just to guide. We might suggest new diet options and new lifestyle goals, but always alongside you and with your complete agreement.
Please, if you have or are at risk for heart disease, incorporate these foods mentioned above. If you have never seen an RD before, I highly recommend finding one in your area. Maybe it’s just a one time visit, but at least you will get tailored advice and guidance to ensure you are doing things the right way. Eating shouldn’t be rocket science, but in our day and time it’s starting to become that way. Take charge of your health and let’s together reduce the incidence of heart disease in this country.