What is a heart healthy diet?
The answer used to seem so clear. The advice of the American Heart Association is to eat a fiber rich diet full of whole grains, vegetables and fruits. Avoid fat, particularly animal products with saturated fat. Limit your portion size and keep your weight in check.
The more I learn, the more I know that the answer isn’t so simple. A recent research review actually found no link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. There have been many books and articles written that say the amount of refined sugar and carbohydrates is the real culprit in heart disease. Their advice is to eat meat, cheese and eggs to stay healthy. You have another group who is equally as passionate that a vegan diet is the surest way to prevent, even reverse, heart disease. Sometimes they even use the same data set, the Framingham Heart Study, to prove their conflicting points.
These competing theories make it hard for the average person to figure how to eat to decrease their risk of heart disease and live a healthy life. I am not a doctor or a university researcher but I say the answer lies somewhere in the middle. While science is always changing there are a few things I know for sure.
Eating to manage your weight matters.
Being obese is a proven lifestyle related risk factor for heart disease. Balancing your plate with your activity to reach and maintain a normal weight and body composition should be your first goal in preventing in coronary heart disease.
You need fiber.
If you believe the supplement commercials, it seems impossible to get the recommended amount of fiber from your daily diet (25 g a day for women and 38 g for men). If you stay away from those refined carbohydrates and eat whole foods it’s actually much easier than you think. While you need a balance of insoluble and soluble fiber for overall health, you should focus on getting your soluble fiber foods to help prevent heart disease and lower LDL cholesterol. Oats and beans are my favorite sources of soluble fiber and for heart health I recommend them daily. WebMd names black bean specifically as a top heart healthy food because they are not only rich in fiber but niacin and magnesium as well.
Stay away from trans fat.
The debate about saturated fat will continue to rage but it would be very difficult to find someone who disagrees with the dangers of trans fat. Trans fat is a double whammy – it lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol and increases LDL (bad) cholesterol. Food marketers are aware of the trans fat problem so they are quick to say trans fat free on the front of the box. They can legally call a product “trans fat free” if it has less than .5 g of trans fat per serving. You need to look at the back of the box to see if it includes any hydrogenated oils (that’s what trans fat is) and check the serving size. Say NO if you see hydrogenated oils.
Stop eating so much sugar.
I’ve known for many years the effects of sugar and heart disease. As a type 1 diabetic I’ve always been told to keep my blood sugar under control or risk damage to my arteries and an increased risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories a day for women and 150 calories per day for men of added sugar. The problem is food labels don’t give us enough information to determine what is added sugar vs what is naturally occurring in a food. My tip is read the ingredient labels. If you see one or more types sugar listed in the first 5 ingredients proceed with caution.
Eat real and colorful food.
Eggs are okay but so are pears. Yes, beans have carbs but they are the smart carbs you need. You need fat, protein and carbs to keep your body working the way it should. You need many different colors on your plate as well to get all the needed vitamins and phytonutrients. It is the food that has been processed to an unrecognizable form (like a nugget?) or that are devoid of color (white flour and white sugar) that you need to limit.
While the scientists battle it out this is the plan I will stick with. For bonus points, I’ll add anti-oxidant rich green tea daily and exercise, another proven lifestyle prevention strategy. It’s a plan for heart health and fitness that is doable, livable and real.
How are you keeping your diet heart healthy?
Not sure where else to begin? Check out my 4 Keys to Real Fitness for more ideas!