If you have heart disease, your diet plays a key role in managing your health. Switching to a heart-healthy diet doesn’t mean you’re stuck with bland or boring meals.
“With easy swaps, you’ll find there are many ways to add flavor and variety to your meals and even enjoy eating out,” says Antigone Senn, RDN, a registered dietitian with the Department of Preventive Cardiology at Henry Ford Health. “These strategies can help everyone looking to manage their overall health by controlling their blood pressure, cholesterol and weight.”
Make Healthy Swaps
As a first step towards a heart-smart diet, Senn recommends focusing on three areas: fats (saturated and trans fats), sodium and fiber.
Reduce Saturated Fats
We all need some fat in our diet to give us energy, protect our organs and help us absorb vitamins. But certain fats, such as saturated fats, can have a negative impact on our health. Saturated fats contain a high percentage of fatty acids and are solid at room temperature. These fats are found in foods that come from animals such as butter, dairy and fatty meats.
Too much saturated fat raises your low-density lipoproteins (LDL), sometimes called “bad” cholesterol. As LDL increases, extra cholesterol in your body combines with other substances to create a sticky substance called plaque. Plaque buildups can increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke by blocking arteries in the body.
Senn recommends that patients with heart disease limit themselves to less than 16 grams of saturated fat per day to control cholesterol.
You can reduce saturated fat in your diet by making these healthy swaps:
- Choose non-fat or low-fat dairy products: Dairy products contain nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, phosphorous and potassium. Non-fat and low-fat milk offer these same nutrients with less fat and fewer calories. If you prefer soy or almond milk, choose products fortified with vitamin D and calcium.
- Eat lean meat and poultry: Enjoy meals that include chicken or turkey breasts, ground chicken or turkey, and lean cuts of meat. Trim excess fat before cooking and drain any extra fat after cooking.
Eliminate Trans Fats
There are two types of trans fats: trans fats from animal products and artificial trans fats found in many processed foods such as fried foods, premade baked goods and frozen entrees.
Trans fats also raise LDL cholesterol, increasing your risk for plaque buildup the same way that saturated fats do. Trans fats also lower high-density lipoproteins (HDL) cholesterol, sometimes called “good” cholesterol. As a result, HDL can’t do its job to move “bad” cholesterol from the arteries to the liver where it’s broken down.
Senn recommends eliminating trans fats from your diet. Consider these healthy alternatives:
- Cook with healthy oils: Use avocado, grapeseed, olive or walnut oil for cooking lean proteins or vegetables.
- Use tub margarine: Choose tub margarine with a liquid oil, such as olive oil, as the first ingredient.
Sodium is one of the components of table salt. Sodium is also added to many processed foods as a preservative. Excess sodium can cause fluid buildup in your body, which puts additional strain on your heart. If you have heart disease, it’s important to limit your sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day.
“Remove the salt shaker from the table to avoid adding salt once your meal is prepared,” says Senn. She also suggests these strategies to limit salt and add flavor to your meals:
- Choose low-sodium packaged foods: Look for canned or frozen foods like broths, soups and vegetables, that are marked as low-sodium.
- Cook at home more: Preparing more of your meals at home is an easy way to control the amount of salt you eat. Try making homemade soups packed with vegetables. Grill lean poultry, meat or fish paired with a potato and fresh vegetables.
- Take care with condiments: Many salad dressings, sauces and toppings contain more salt than you’d expect. Instead, choose low-sodium options and watch your portion size.
- Top foods with fresh citrus juice and herbs: Fresh lemon or lime juice and fresh chopped herbs can add tons of flavor to dishes you would normally salt. If you don’t have fresh herbs on hand, dried herbs work well too.
Add More Fiber
Fiber helps control cholesterol levels and blood pressure. It also keeps you fuller longer, helping manage weight. Unfortunately, many people don’t eat enough fiber. “We recommend eating 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day. Most Americans average only 12 grams,” says Senn.
Adding fiber-rich foods to your meals can boost heart health. You can easily do this by eating more fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans and peas) and whole grains.
Select Heart-Healthy Options When Dining Out
You can still follow a heart-healthy diet when dining out or picking up a to-go meal. To identify healthy options, look for key words in the menu.
To avoid dishes filled with extra fat, salt and calories, stay away from menu items described as:
- Battered or breaded
- Containing butter, cheese, cream or hollandaise sauce
- Deep-fried, “Southern style” or tempura
Instead, choose dishes that are:
- Baked, boiled or broiled
- Grilled or lightly sauteed
- Poached, roasted or steamed
Additionally, make sure to watch your portion size when eating out. If a serving is larger than the recommended portion size, don’t be afraid to ask for a box for your leftovers!
Still have questions about a menu item? Ask your server how dishes are prepared and request a healthy swap. Most restaurants will let you substitute grilled vegetables or a salad for French fries.
Transitioning to a more heart-healthy diet might feel like work, but be creative with your meals and try new recipes. “Your taste buds will adapt, and you’ll enjoy a world of new flavors,” says Senn.
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Antigone Senn is a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in nutrition counseling and health coaching at Henry Ford Health’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.