- Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
From eating more fish to noshing on nuts, making heart-healthier choices can be easy and tasty.
One of the best ways to protect yourself against heart disease? Give your diet a heart-healthy makeover. But that doesn’t mean you have to go vegetarian or sacrifice your favorite foods. Sometimes all it takes is a few simple swaps to boost the heart-healthy factor of each meal.
Why should you make modifications to your diet? Eating a diet of fruits, vegetables, and foods low in saturated fat is associated with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, says Sharmin Basher, MD, an assistant professor of medicine in the cardiovascular medicine division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. In fact, people who follow such a diet have a 73 percent lower risk for having a significant cardiac event, such as a heart attack or stroke, according to the World Heart Federation (WHF).
If you’re still worried about your taste buds’ reaction to this news, try these simple strategies for swapping out artery-clogging choices in favor of heart-friendly foods — without compromising flavor.
Give Your Proteins a Heart-Healthy Upgrade
Protein is an essential nutrient, but getting your daily requirement only from meat sources — which are typically high in saturated fat — isn’t heart-healthy. Try this instead:
1. Get hooked on fish. Aim to eat two 3- to 6-ounce servings of fish each week. Most types of fish are great choices, but the fatty kind — which offers heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids — is particularly good for you, explains Jill Weisenberger, RDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of 21 Things You Need to Know About Diabetes and Your Heart and The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition.
Omega-3s help slow plaque formation in the arteries, maintain a healthy heartbeat, and lower blood triglyceride (fat) levels, Weisenberger says. The best sources of omega-3s in fish? Anchovies, wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, bluefin tuna, herring, and trout, according to the University of Michigan Health System.
2. Sprinkle on more omega-3s. Walnuts and flaxseed are rich in omega-3s and other heart-healthy unsaturated fats, Weisenberger says. Sprinkle them on salads, heart-healthy oatmeal, or even pasta. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that flaxseed should be ground, not eaten whole, to get all its benefits. Just be sure to eat flaxseed within 24 hours of grinding so its healthy components stay active.
3. Go vegetarian once a week (or more). Eggs, beans, legumes, and tofu are all great meatless protein options that can be used to make tasty meals, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Enjoy an omelet for breakfast, a bean burrito loaded with fresh salsa and other veggies for lunch, and a tofu and veggie stir-fry for dinner.
4. Choose 90-percent-lean meats. When shopping for meat, Weisenberger suggests looking for this designation on the label to ensure you’re cutting out much of the heart-damaging saturated fat.
5. Skip deli meat completely. A study published in in 2013 in BMC Medicinefound that, even more than red meat, processed meats increase the risk for premature death from all causes — and from cardiovascular diseases and cancer in particular. Instead of buying deli and prepackaged lunch meats, roast a chicken or turkey on the weekend and slice up portions to use in sandwiches, salads, and wraps all week long.
Enjoy More Fruits, Veggies, and Grains
The American Heart Association recommends having about 4.5 servings of fruits and veggies a day. Still, an estimated 20 percent of heart disease cases worldwide might be linked to not eating enough fruits and vegetables, according to the WHF. To boost your intake of these antioxidant-rich choices, follow these eight tips:
1. Make it a rule to add at least one vegetable to every meal no matter what you’re having — pasta, soup, salad, an omelet, or a sandwich.
2. Load up pizza with veggies instead of meat. Opt for a variety of veggies to make unique topping combinations. This is a great way to get more veggies in your diet and save calories on pizza night.
3. Start dinner with a salad. Consider adding diced fruit to your greens for a sweet touch.
4. Snack on fresh fruit slices with low-fat yogurt as a dip. This is a great snack alternative to chips and other unhealthy finds from the vending machine.
5. Sweeten your cereal with fresh or dried fruit. It’s a painless way to get more fruit into your diet.
6. Have homemade fruit salad for dessert (not the canned kind). Sooner or later, you might just start craving fruit at the end of your meals instead of sugary desserts.
7. Skip store-bought bottles of salad dressings. They usually include excessive amounts of sodium. Make your own dressing instead by whisking equal parts olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar, then adding herbs and seasonings.
8. Choose grain-based foods with the “whole grain” stamp. The Whole Grains Council grants this stamp to products that deliver at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving. “Be leery of labels touting ‘made with whole grains,'” Weisenberger says, as they might include only a small amount of whole grains.
In addition, if you keep finding yourself at fast-food restaurants or ordering takeout despite your best efforts, have a Plan B at the ready. “Look at menus ahead of time and keep a list of the best options in your smartphone or on an index card,” Weisenberger suggests. Just a little preparation can help you stay on track with your heart-healthy goals.
Last Updated: 12/8/2014