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SALT LAKE CITY — Over 600,000 Americans die of heart disease each year — accounting for one in every four deaths — making it the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Regardless of age, lifestyle or family and medical histories, incorporating healthier habits is sure to be a step in the right direction. Healthy doesn’t have to be difficult or resented. If you choose nutritious foods that taste good to you and find physical activities that you enjoy, then you can create healthy habits that work for you. Small changes add up and can make an impact on your health in the long run.
While you’ve likely heard the recommendations to not smoke, get 30 minutes of physical activity several days per week, and manage health conditions like high blood pressure or cholesterol, diet also plays a big role in your long term health — especially when it comes to your heart. Here are five recommendations to make your meals heart-healthy.
1. Put the salt shaker away
The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend Americans consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium each day as part of a healthy eating pattern. Excess sodium is associated with high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
Though our bodies require sodium for a variety of processes, too much from processed foods, restaurant meals and even home cooking can raise blood pressure. Instead of flavoring your food with salt, consider herbs and spices as an alternative to add flavor and variety to your meals. Many even act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents.
From garlic, basil and rosemary to cinnamon, ginger and turmeric, there are many herbs and spices sure to give you the seasoning you need to make your taste buds happy.
2. Add fats — the heart-healthy kind
Fat has long been criticized in the American diet. This is due to the fact that trans fats and too much saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease and raise bad cholesterol levels.
However, not all fats are bad. Unsaturated fats, found in a variety foods such as olive oil, avocados, flaxseed, walnuts and fish, can reduce your risk for heart disease when eaten in moderation.
Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and have been shown to help lower cholesterol and triglycerides. They are considered an essential fatty acid, which means our bodies can’t make them and we must get them from our diets. Fish are an excellent source of omega-3s (particularly fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel and albacore tuna). The American Heart Association suggests eating two servings of fish each week. Plant-based sources of omega-3s include ground flaxseed and walnuts.
3. Go lean with protein
Selecting lean protein options is a heart-smart choice, as they are lower in saturated fats. Poultry and fish without the skin as well as eggs, beans, lentils and nuts are excellent choices of lean protein. If you choose to eat red meat, look for leaner cuts, such as round, loin or sirloin steaks and roasts.
At home, cook your protein in healthy ways without added saturated and trans fats. For example, instead of deep frying your chicken, try baking or roasting it. Trimming off visible fat before cooking and draining any fat after cooking can help as well. You can even take it a step further and go meat-free one day a week.
4. Include more plants
Most people won't argue that fruits and vegetables are good for you. However, the recommendation to include more plants in your diet extends to more than just fruits and veggies; nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains also apply here. Plant-based foods are good sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber.
Aside from keeping your heart healthy, the nutrients in plants can help maintain numerous functions in the body such as cell formation, transporting oxygen throughout the blood, thyroid regulation and keeping your immune system healthy. Dietary fiber, in particular, can improve cholesterol levels while also lowering your risk for heart disease, stroke, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
At meal time, filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables is a great place to start, then choose a whole grain to add to your meal. It doesn't have to be the same boring thing every meal. You can mix it up and choose a variety of plant-based foods to include in your diet each day.
5. Limit added sugars
Just as fats were shunned in the '90s, sugar is now the food demonized in our diet. But, like fats, not all sugars are equal. There are natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars are naturally present in foods such as fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Added sugars are sugars and syrups added to foods during preparation — whether in the factory or at home.
Natural sugars are often found in foods with beneficial nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Added sugars offer no nutritional benefit to your diet and add extra calories that can lead to weight gain, which may worsen heart health. Added sugars include (but are not limited to) white sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses, high fructose corn syrup and maple syrup.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of added sugars in our diets to about 6 teaspoons a day for women and about 9 teaspoons a day for men. Though you should limit the amount of added sugars you eat, you don't have to get rid of it altogether. Small amounts of sugar can be used to help complement and enhance the taste of nutrient-rich foods in your diet such as oatmeal or plain Greek yogurt. These small amounts added to whole foods is healthier than eating low-nutrient, highly sweetened foods.
Through meal planning and cooking at home, you can make your kitchen heart-smart. Choosing a generally healthy diet that focuses on a variety of whole foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats is a sure way to eat your way to a healthier heart.
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