There may be some confusion when we discuss ways to prevent heart disease through nutrition. We believe we have to eat perfectly, but what really matters is paying attention and working on adding the better choices in, so the not-so-great choices slowly don’t have as much room.
This is the message that Laura Hamilton MA, RD, CSP, LD teaches our preventive patients every day.
Whether you and your family have years of unhealthy eating habits or you simply want to fine-tune your family’s diet, here are eight heart-healthy habit tips.
Once you know which foods to eat more of and which foods to limit, you’ll be on your way toward a heart-healthy diet.
1. Control your portion size
How much you eat is just as important as what you eat, sometimes more. Overloading your plate, getting seconds and eating until you’re stuffed can lead to eating more calories than you should. Portions served in restaurants are often more than anyone needs, ESPECIALLY for our kids! Adult size portions are too big for adults, so having our kids eat the same amount is a big issue!
- Use a small plate or bowl to help control your portions.
- Eat larger portions of low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and smaller portions of high-calorie, high-sodium foods, such as refined, processed or fast foods.
- Keep track of the number of servings you eat. The recommended number of servings per food group may vary depending on the specific diet or guidelines you’re following.
- A serving size is a specific amount of food, defined by common measurements such as cups, ounces or pieces.
- A great place to start is reading the Nutrition Facts Label. Even if the portions are slightly bigger than what your child needs, you are at least headed in the right direction because you are paying attention, you can always adjust.
- Judging serving size is a learned skill. You may need to use measuring cups and spoons or a scale until you’re comfortable with your judgment.
- Hands can be a great tool as well. Especially for kids, this tool really points out how much smaller our children are and don’t always need as much as adults.
- Closed Fist = 1 serving of fruit, or pasta or rice, potato, or cereal etc.
- Open palm (no fingers) = serving of protein
- 2 hands open together = serving of non-starchy vegetables
2. Eat more vegetables and fruits
Vegetables and fruits are fantastic sources of vitamins and minerals. Vegetables and fruits are also generally lower in calories but rich in dietary fiber means we stay more full.
Vegetables and fruits, like other plants or plant-based foods, contain substances that may help prevent cardiovascular disease.
Don’t worry, adding more vegetables and fruits in your diet can be easy.
- Keep vegetables washed and cut in your refrigerator for quick snacks.
- Keep fruit in a bowl in your kitchen so that you’ll remember to eat it.
- Reduce purchasing of other snacks so these become the snack option.
- Choose recipes that have vegetables or fruits as the main ingredients, such as vegetable stir-fry or fresh fruit mixed into salads.
Fruits and vegetables to choose
- Fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits
- Low-sodium canned vegetables
- Canned fruit packed in juice or water
Fruits and vegetables to limit
- Vegetables with creamy sauces
- Fried or breaded vegetables
- Canned fruit packed in heavy syrup
- Frozen fruit with sugar added
3. Select whole grains
Whole grains can be good sources of fiber and other nutrients that play a role in regulating blood pressure and heart health. You can increase the number of whole grains in a heart-healthy diet by making simple substitutions for refined grain products.
Like eating 100% Whole grain bread or Oatmeal instead of a non-filling sugary cereal.
Or try a new whole grain, such as whole-grain farro, quinoa or barley.
Aim to choose products that have at least 3g-5g fiber per serving.
Grains products to choose
- Whole-wheat flour
- Whole-grain bread, preferably 100% whole-wheat bread or 100% whole-grain bread
- High-fiber cereal with 5 g or more fiber in a serving
- Whole grains such as brown rice, barley and buckwheat (kasha)
- Whole-grain pasta
- Oatmeal (steel-cut or regular)
Grain products to limit or avoid
- White, refined flour
- White bread
- Frozen waffles
- Corn bread
- Quick breads
- Egg noodles
- Buttered popcorn
- High-fat snack crackers
4. Limit unhealthy fats
A high blood cholesterol level can lead to a buildup of plaques in your arteries, called atherosclerosis, which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. Limiting how much saturated and trans fats you eat is an important step to reduce your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of coronary artery disease.
The American Heart Association offers these guidelines for how much fat to include in a heart-healthy diet:
- Saturated fat: Try to limit the product you purchase that has over 10% daily value on the nutrition facts label—this way it’s easy to.
- Trans fat: Avoid as best as possible. Or choose places that you can view the nutrition facts and make better choices that do not have trans fat.
You can reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet by choosing lean meats with less than 10 percent fat. You can also add less butter, margarine and shortening when cooking and serving.
You can also use low-fat substitutions when possible for a heart-healthy diet. For example, top your baked potato with low-sodium salsa or low-fat yogurt rather than butter, or use sliced whole fruit or low-sugar fruit spread on your toast instead of margarine.
Food labels of some cookies, cakes, frostings, crackers and chips can be tricky. Some of these — even those labeled “reduced fat”—may be made with oils containing trans fats. One clue that a food has some trans fat in it is the phrase “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. The front of the package is just advertising so stick to the Nutrition facts and ingredient list for information.
When you do use fats, choose monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil or canola oil. Polyunsaturated fats, found in certain fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, also are good choices for a heart-healthy diet. When used in place of saturated fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may help lower your total blood cholesterol. But moderation is essential. All types of fat are high in calories, so the main thing to focus on is portions.
An easy way to add healthy fat (and fiber) to your diet is ground flaxseed. Flaxseeds are small brown seeds that are high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Some studies have found that flaxseeds may help lower cholesterol in some people, but more research is needed. You can grind the seeds in a coffee grinder or food processor and stir a teaspoon of them into yogurt, applesauce or hot cereal.
Fats to choose
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
- Vegetable and nut oils
- Margarine, trans fat free
- Cholesterol-lowering margarine, such as Benecol, Promise Activ or Smart Balance
- Nuts, seeds
Fats to limit
- Bacon fat
- Cream sauce
- Nondairy creamers
- Hydrogenated margarine and shortening
- Cocoa butter, found in chocolate
- Coconut, palm, cottonseed and palm-kernel oils
5. Choose low-fat protein sources
Lean meat, poultry and fish, low-fat dairy products, and eggs are some of your best options of protein. Choosing lower fat options, such as skim or 1% milk rather than whole milk and using skinless chicken breasts rather than fried chicken.
Fish is another good alternative to high-fat meats. And certain types of fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower blood fats called triglycerides. You’ll find the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring. Other sources are flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil.
Legumes — beans, peas and lentils — also are good sources of protein and contain less fat and no cholesterol, making them good substitutes for meat. Substituting plant protein for animal protein — for example, a soy or bean burger for a hamburger — will reduce your fat and cholesterol intake and increase your fiber intake, win/win!
Proteins to choose
- Low-fat dairy products, such as skim or low-fat (1%) milk, yogurt and cheese
- Fish, especially fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon
- Skinless poultry
- Soybeans and soy products, such as soy burgers and tofu
- Lean ground meats
Proteins to limit or avoid
- Full-fat milk and other dairy products
- Organ meats, such as liver
- Fatty and marbled meats
- Hot dogs and sausages
- Fried or breaded meats
6. Reduce the sodium in your food.
Regularly eating a lot of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Reducing sodium in your diet is an important part of a heart-healthy diet. The American Heart Association recommends that:
- Healthy adults have no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day (about a teaspoon of salt)
- Most adults ideally have no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day
- But unless you are tracking your intake it can be hard to tell if you are on the right track
Reducing the amount of salt you add to food at the table or while cooking is a good first step. However much of the salt you eat comes from canned or packaged foods, such as soups (Ramen), chips, baked goods and frozen foods. Eating fresh foods *Fruits and Veggies and making your own soups and stews can reduce the amount of salt you eat.
If you like the convenience of canned soups and prepared meals, look for ones with reduced sodium. Be aware of foods that claim to be lower in sodium because they are seasoned with sea salt or Pink Himalayan instead of regular table salt — sea salt has the same nutritional value as regular salt. Pink Himalayan salt is thought to have less sodium than table salt, but getting into the practice of adding less salt of any kind in general is the better idea over all.
Another way to reduce the amount of salt you eat is to choose your condiments carefully. Many condiments are available in reduced-sodium versions, and salt substitutes can add flavor to your food with less sodium. Also portion control!
Low-salt items to choose
- Herbs and spices
- Salt-free seasoning blends
- Reduced-salt canned soups or prepared meals
- Reduced-salt versions of condiments, such as reduced-salt soy sauce and reduced-salt ketchup
High-salt items to limit or avoid
- Table salt
- Canned soups and prepared foods, such as frozen dinners
- Tomato juice
- Condiments such as ketchup, mayonnaise and soy sauce
- Restaurant meals
7. Allow yourself an occasional treat
Allow yourself and your family an indulgence every now and then. A candy bar or handful of potato chips won’t totally derail your heart-healthy diet, it could even prolong it! Studies show that when you allow certain fun foods to have a place in your diet, you don’t crave them or see them in a negative way, therefore you can live in balance with them.
In other words don’t let it turn into an excuse for giving up on your healthy-eating plan.
If overindulgence is the exception, rather than the rule, you’ll balance things out over the long term. What’s important is that you eat healthy foods most of the time.
8. Plan ahead by creating daily menus
Now that you have learned how to incorporate healthy choices into your daily diets, now it’s time to put your plans into action.
Create daily menus using the strategies listed above. When selecting foods for each meal and snack, emphasize vegetables, fruits and whole grains, opt for lean protein sources and healthier fats and limit salty foods. Be sure to watch your portion sizes and add variety to your menu choices.
For example, if you have grilled salmon one evening, try a black-bean burger the next night. This helps ensure that you’ll get all of the nutrients your body needs. Variety also makes your meals and snacks more interesting.