6 Ways to Fight Heart Disease by Eating Well
Chances are your diabetes eating plan revolves around carbohydrate grams. While carbs are certainly important for blood glucose control, there are other nutrients it pays to know, too: those that factor into your heart's overall health.
By modifying your diet you can reduce cholesterol and blood pressure levels, which are associated with heart disease. People with diabetes are at a greater risk for heart disease than those without diabetes. By following these six tips, you'll be well on your way to a stronger heart
1. Limit Sodium
Salt may make food taste better, but it also can raise blood pressure to unhealthy levels, which increases the risk for heart disease. The federal recommendation for most Americans is up to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, though most people eat much more than that. For people with diabetes (and those over 50, African Americans, and people with high blood pressure), that intake limit drops to 1,500 mg daily.
While your first order of business may be to hold the salt at the dinner table or replace salt with spices and herbs—excellent ideas and a step in the right direction—it might not have the impact you hope for. That's because packaged foods and restaurant meals are the real culprits. Limiting those foods can help. "If someone really wants to follow a 1,500-milligram sodium diet, they can't eat out [often]. It's going to be a treat for them," says Jennifer Neily, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, a registered dietitian in private practice in Dallas.
Also a problem are processed meats, such as bacon, salami, bologna, and pastrami, which are all high in sodium. "Honestly, turkey bacon is not any more healthy than regular bacon," says Neily. "When it comes down to the sodium content, it's often worse."
One eating plan that specifically caters to those looking to reduce their salt intake and lower blood pressure is the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This approach limits salt and added sugar intake and also promotes fruit and vegetable consumption. Eating fruits and veggies increases potassium, calcium, and magnesium—nutrients shown to positively affect blood pressure.
2. Get Smart About Fat
The fat you eat is a direct player in heart disease, which is why a heart-healthy eating plan limits saturated fat and eliminates trans fats. Saturated fat, found mostly in meat, full-fat dairy, butter, and coconut and palm oils, is solid at room temperature and can raise your LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels. Even worse: trans fats, which are typically artificial and added to processed foods to maintain their shelf life. "This type of fat is especially bad because too much can lower your HDL ['good'] cholesterol and raise your LDL—a double whammy to your heart health," says Willow Jarosh, RD, a registered dietitian in private practice in New York City.
Thanks to label laws, many restaurants and food manufacturers have removed trans fats from their products. Yet plenty of packaged foods claim to have zero trans fats but actually have some because amounts less than a half gram per serving don't have to be listed. "To know with absolute certainty, look at the ingredient label and look for the words partially hydrogenated," says Neily. "There might be a trace of trans fat in there, and if you have multiple servings it's going to add up."
Not all fats are harmful to your heart, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are found in plant-based foods such as olive oil, avocados, and nuts; polyunsaturated fats are found in foods such as soybean and safflower oils, fish, and walnuts.
3. Choose Your Meats Wisely
Because saturated fat is a no-no for heart health, be selective about what meat you eat. Red meats such as beef, lamb, and venison are high in saturated fat. Opt for lean meats such as skinless chicken and turkey, pork tenderloin or loin roast (but not ham or bacon, which are high in sodium), and fish.
If you eat red meat, consider the look and the cut. "The best red meat to buy: the redder the better," says Neily. "If you can trim away much of the white fat, you're going to be better off." Stick with ground beef that's at least 85 to 90 percent lean—though leaner is even better—and extra lean cuts of beef. Those include eye of round roast, top round steak, mock tender steak, bottom round roast, and top sirloin steaks, says Stephanie Clarke, RD, a New York City registered dietitian in private practice.
4. Pick the Right Kind of Dairy
Eating full-fat dairy can easily add too much saturated fat to your eating plan. "Just 1 ounce of cheese has 6 grams—half of a woman's daily budget—of saturated fat," says Neily. "An ounce is about the size of your thumb. That's not a whole lot of cheese." You can eat your daily allowance of saturated fat in cheese, but it's going to be less than satisfying. Welcome 1 percent or skim milk and low-fat cheese and yogurt to your table to get the calcium and other nutrients you need.
5. Picture Your Plate
"A heart-healthy diet is really just good, healthy eating and what we encourage the general population to eat anyway," says Neily. Fruits and vegetables are staples of a heart-healthy diet as are mono- and polyunsaturated fats, carbs from whole grains, and protein in the form of lean meats, fish, beans, and tofu.
If you're struggling to get the hang of it, try visualizing your plate. Half of it should be filled with nonstarchy veggies such as broccoli and asparagus. A quarter should hold whole grains such as brown rice, barley, and quinoa. And the final quarter should contain your protein. "Meat should be thought of as a side, not the main attraction of the meal," says Clarke.
6. Cook and Shop Wisely
How you cook your food is just as important as what you eat. "Cooking methods that require oil, like sautéing and frying, can still fit into this plan," says Jarosh. "People just need to choose a healthful fat." And rely on measuring spoons for doling out a serving of vegetable oil, which is 1 teaspoon. "You can't pour oil into a pan and expect to eyeball a teaspoon," she says. "You have to get out measuring spoons and measure."
Putting time into your meals up front saves time later. "Prep as much of the food on the weekend as you can, so when the chaos of the week sets in, you have no excuses to deviate from healthy eating," says Clarke. She also underscores the importance of reading food labels and ingredient lists before buying a food. "If the ingredient list is way too long for you to stand there in the aisle of the store and look over," she says, "then it's probably not a food you want to be eating anyway."
It may seem as if eating for your heart's health is just another chore on top of carb counting. But like carb counting, maintaining a heart-healthy way of eating may help you stay complication free. "It's really difficult to change habits. You must learn to incorporate them into your daily schedule or lifestyle," says Jarosh. "But while it's certainly a challenge, the more you practice, the easier it gets, and the benefits are a great incentive."
A Sample Heart-Healthy Menu
Here's a sample day of meals with a heart-healthy focus that includes whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruit and veggies, lean protein, and healthful fats.
Breakfast: A cup of whole-grain cereal with half cup of low-fat or nonfit milk, a tablespoon nuts, and a serving of berries.
Lunch: Sandwich on whole-grain bread with 3 ounces of chicken and a small amount of reduced-fat mayo, piled with nonstarchy veggies such as lettuce, tomato, cucumber, zucchini, carrot, and fresh herbs. Side of steamed broccoli with a drizzle of olive oil. A small piece of fruit.
Snack: A container of low-fat, no-sugar-added yogurt.
Dinner: Grilled salmon, 3 to 4 ounces, a tossed salad with nonstarchy veggies, steamed green beans, and two-thirds cup of cold bulgur with a dressing of olive oil, vinegar, and spices.