17 Tips for Heart-Healthy Eating
You’ve probably heard about a diabetes-friendly diet. It’s a cornerstone of good blood glucose management. But what your doctor may not have told you is that a heart-healthy diet is also important. People with diabetes are at an increased risk for heart disease, and a typical American diet—even if you control your calories and carb intake—ups that risk significantly. Fortunately, a balanced eating plan can help you keep blood glucose in control and protect your heart.
Cutting out fast food and highly processed junk food will go a long way toward better health, but you may need to adjust your home-cooking methods, too. Foods loaded with saturated fat are associated with high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, too much salt plays a role in high blood pressure, and eating too many starches can lead to high blood glucose levels and weight gain—all of which play a role in cardiovascular disease. The good news, says John La Puma, MD, a chef, host of PBS’s Eat and Cook Healthy, and founder of the healthy-cooking site ChefMD.com, is that dietary changes can lower your chances of having a heart attack or stroke by reducing injury to the arteries caused by high cholesterol.
Joe Piscatella is living proof that a healthy diet can protect your heart. At 32, he had 95 percent blockage of his left coronary artery and, though he had bypass surgery for it, one cardiologist told him he wouldn’t live to see 40. That was 36 years ago. “I became a believer in lifestyle changes if for no other reason than because I couldn’t change my DNA, but I could change the way I lived,” says Piscatella, who has written a number of books about heart disease and cooking for heart health, including The Road to Heart Health Runs Through the Kitchen. “We’re talking about heart disease and diabetes,” he says. “We’re talking about diseases and conditions that can have major changes on your life.”For those of us who haven’t earned our chef’s whites through years of culinary school, the experts dish their tips for heart-healthy cooking.
1. Forget Frying
It’s no secret that fried food is the American equivalent of ambrosia, but the hard truth is that it’s incredibly unhealthy. (Frying is, after all, dunking your food in a vat of fat.) Eating a lot of fried foods is linked to high blood pressure, increased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and other risk factors for heart disease. That said, a 2012 study in the journal BMJ found no link between fried-food consumption and coronary heart disease risk, which researchers attributed to the healthy oils the Spanish participants used. So while frying isn’t an optimal cooking method, if you’re going to fry, pick olive or sunflower oil over vegetable oil, butter, or shortening.
2. Cook Healthier
One of the simplest ways to transform your diet into one that benefits your heart is to pick the right cooking method. Tops for health are steaming, stir-frying, roasting, and grilling.
Steam: Using steam to cook foods is one of the healthiest cooking techniques. It’s a particularly nice way to cook fish, and steamed veggies are among the easiest side dishes to prepare. If steamed food tastes bland, add herbs, spices, or an acid, such as citrus juice, to the dish for a pop of flavor. Marc Anthony Bynum, a chef in Long Island, N.Y., who works with the American Heart Association, pairs steamed broccolini with caramelized onions and chopped thyme.
Stir-fry: Because stir-frying requires such high heat and so little oil, it’s a good option for cooking meats and veggies—provided you don’t drown them in sauce. “Stir-fry” food in water and you’re essentially steaming it.
Roast: Possibly the most flavorful way to cook vegetables is by roasting them. Drizzled with a little olive oil, carrots, asparagus, green beans, red peppers, and even red cabbage sweeten to perfection.
Grill: This is especially great for meats because it doesn’t require additional fat (that is, you don’t need to coat meat in oil before placing it on the grill) and allows the fat in meat to drain, so you’re eating the lowest-fat version.
3. Choose the Right Cooking Fat
You don’t have to cut fat out of your diet entirely to follow a heart-healthy meal plan. Instead, pay attention to the type of fat you’re using. Saturated and trans fats have been implicated in heart disease, so focus instead on unsaturated fats. That means replacing palm oil, butter, and lard (all high in saturated fat) with olive, canola, or avocado oils (high in monounsaturated fat). Or ditch trans fat–laden vegetable shortening and some margarines for safflower or sunflower oils (packed with polyunsaturated fat). You can also use healthy fats to infuse flavor, such as making salad dressing with almond oil or stir-frying vegetables in peanut oil.
4. Heat the Pan First
It may sound strange, but your dinner will be lower in fat if you add food to a pan of already-hot oil. When a pan is still heating and the oil you’ve added is cold, it’s more likely to seep into your food. On the flip side, “if it’s already hot, it will sear the meat,” and less will soak in, Bynum says.
5. Rely on Herbs and Spices
You could say Americans have a bit of a salt addiction. A recent Institute of Medicine report found that adults consume about 3,400 mg of sodium per day—well above the government-recommended 2,300 mg or less per day and more than twice the recommended 1,500 mg or less per day for people over age 50, those with high blood pressure, and those of African descent. And while most sodium comes from processed foods, there’s no reason to go overboard in the kitchen. Instead of using salt to flavor your foods, cook with herbs and spices. Try rosemary on your potatoes, basil on your tomatoes, and dill on your salmon.
6. Shake Salt Last
Many chefs add seasoning as their dish cooks. But many chefs also cook high-sodium meals. If you’re at high risk for heart disease or have heart problems, nixing the sodium can help your health. That’s because the more sodium you consume, the greater risk you have for high blood pressure. Piscatella and La Puma suggest salting food after it’s done cooking because you’re less likely to go overboard. “[As you cook], you sort of lose track of how much you’ve added,” La Puma says. “I like people to salt their own foods because not everyone has the same taste.” Piscatella also uses this trick with shredded cheese, which he adds, sparingly, at the table.
7. Add Flavor
For a tangy punch, vinegar, wine, and citrus fruits brighten even the most robust flavors. Reduce the amount of cheese and sour cream on your taco, then squeeze a lime over it. Drizzle balsamic vinegar over berries instead of adding sugar for dessert. And simmer fish in white wine.
8. Try Ingredients in Tubes
Get big flavor with small portions by buying tubes of sun-dried tomato, olive, anchovy, or harissa (hot red pepper) pastes. “Just a dash will enliven dishes,” La Puma says.
9. Don’t Disguise Your Food
The simplest of preparations make for the healthiest of meals, so naturally a diet that benefits your heart health should avoid “dressed up” foods. What does that mean? Stop hiding your meat, vegetables, or pasta under creamy sauces, dressings, piles of cheese, bread crumbs, or other toppings. Those additions may be tasty, but they won’t do your ticker any favors. Instead, experiment with herbs, spices, and acidic foods or enjoy the food for its own delicious flavor.
10. Double Up
You can make dishes more flavorful, La Puma says, by using two forms of an ingredient. Add extra tomato flavor to pizza by using marinara sauce and topping the pie with fresh tomato slices. Or double up a dish’s basil flavor by using fresh and dried versions of the herb.
11. Be Smart About Sauces
Many sauces spoil a healthy diet because they’re loaded with cream, cheese, butter, and other heart-unfriendly ingredients. But some sauces add both flavor and key nutrients. “Many cultures, especially Latino cultures, make sauces from vegetables or nuts instead of cream or cheese or oil,” says La Puma. He likes to blend various vegetables into a smooth sauce, such as a roasted tomatillo, onion, serrano chili, and oregano blend that he pours over grilled mahimahi. Or try baking fish in salsa and spooning basil pesto over chicken.
12. Pick Lean Meats
Because diabetes puts you at risk for cardiovascular disease, you’ll want to limit the amount of red meat (think beef, lamb, and pork), and thus saturated fat, that you eat. It’s been linked numerous times to an increased risk of heart disease. Switching to leaner proteins, such as poultry, is ideal, and fish is even better. Because of its high omega-3 fatty acid content (salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel are especially high in omega-3s), fish can improve your blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower your overall risk for cardiovascular disease. Of course, you can still indulge in red meat on occasion. When you do, pick lower-fat cuts, opting for fresh meat over processed goods such as sausages and hot dogs. Look for leaner cuts of beef, such as tenderloin, eye round roast, and top sirloin steak—or opt for bison, which is similar in taste but leaner.
13. Wise Up About Well Done
It’s one thing to enjoy well-done meat, but skip spots so charred they’re blackened. According to a study in the February 2013 issue of the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition, food cooked to a crisp (think burned hot dogs or the darkened edge of a brownie) produces advanced glycation end products (called AGEs), which are associated with the kind of plaque formation seen in heart disease.
14. Exercise Portion Control
If you’ve been cooking for some time, you may be used to using too much of some ingredients. For instance, Bynum says cooking an entire chicken breast requires only 1 teaspoon of oil, but most people coat the pan in more than twice as much. Nonstick pans can help you further reduce the amount of oil you need. “To be conscious of what you’re eating, you really need to measure it,” Bynum says. You may be surprised to learn just how much a tablespoon of butter is or just how large your usual “sprinkle” of cheese is.
15. Switch to Whole Grains
Fiber-rich whole grains are a smart part of a heart-healthy diet and an easy swap to make. Piscatella suggests starting small by going fifty-fifty, such as by blending brown rice with white before switching completely to brown. And don’t forget lesser-known whole grains, such as quinoa, bulgur, millet, and kamut. Bynum’s quinoa, tomato, spinach, and goat cheese salad is a delicious way to add whole grains to your diet.
16. Prepare in Advance
If you’re not a full-time chef, you may wonder how you’ll find time to cook healthy meals daily. While home cooking may require less of a commitment than you think, there’s another alternative: Cook ahead of time. La Puma suggests cooking meals all in one day, then reheating them during the week.
17. Try New Things
Just as you may have to give up a few favorites in order to follow a more heart-friendly diet, you may discover new meals and foods you enjoy. So don’t be afraid to branch out and try recipes and dishes that may sound strange. Roasted radishes, for instance, are surprisingly sweet. Grilling gives romaine depth of flavor and your salad added interest. Watermelon and balsamic are better partners than you might imagine. And kale leaves, when drizzled with olive oil and baked, make for surprisingly addictive, guilt-free chips.