Simply Heart Healthy

February 2022

by tiffany ricci, rdn

We take the time in February to shed light on heart health because heart disease remains the number one cause of death in America. The American Heart Association (AHA) raises awareness during American Heart Health Month, reminding us to take simple steps towards improving our heart health. 

Studies show that improving your diet decreases your risk of a cardiovascular event - and death. Making daily food choices to support heart health is a way to care for yourself and your loved ones. According to the AHA, a heart-healthy diet is high in fiber and low in processed foods and added sugar. AHA also recommends lowering the intake of trans-fats, sodium, and processed meats.  

These recommendations can seem overwhelming! So here are three simple steps you can take toward a heart-friendly diet: 

ENJOY MORE PLANTS. Fiber is amazing! It binds to excess fat, cholesterol, and sugar in meals to dispose of them, it helps improve the microbiome, and foods high in fiber have key nutrients to help decrease inflammation and improve blood pressure - all of these worthy traits improve heart health. Fiber is found in plants - veggies, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, and fruit. There is no need to go vegan or vegetarian - it’s simple to add plants throughout your day: 

  • Replace your fruit juice with a piece of fruit 
  • Trade-in your morning cornflakes for whole-grain cereal or oatmeal. 
  • Enjoy whole-grain toast with avocado instead of a donut or pastry. 
  • Add a side salad to your lunch. 
  • Forgo the afternoon chips or candy and opt for a handful of roasted almonds. 
  • Commit to including a side of roasted veggies with your dinner. 
  • Opt for whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, or quinoa instead of the refined options.

MODERATE PORTIONS. You don't have to swear off treats to be heart-healthy. You can still enjoy your favorite foods in moderation. Rather than quitting desserts and savory snacks cold turkey, decide to have a small portion instead. You’re more likely to stick to your heart-healthy changes if you can also take in treats occasionally. Some tools to try include: 

  • Using a smaller bowl for ice cream. 
  • Portioning out your chips, put the bag away, then enjoy them. 
  • Dividing your brownie in half. 
  • Plating meals on a smaller plate. Wait 20 minutes before deciding on a second helping.  
  • Filling half your plate with veggies, saving the other half for the remainder of your meal.  

TRY HEART-HEALTHY SWAPS. Clearly, some foods provide more nutritional value than others. These choices may have different textures, flavors, and aromas from your usual fare. Know that you are making a healthy change, and over time, your body will look forward to these swaps. Consider trading: 

  • Buttery crackers for whole-wheat crackers or nut-thins 
  • Sweetened yogurt for plain low-fat yogurt + fruit + drizzle of honey 
  • 80/20 ground beef for 85/15 when making hamburgers and 93/7 when served as taco meat, in spaghetti sauce and casseroles 
  • Mayo for avocado + hummus in a sandwich; Use Greek yogurt or hummus when making tuna/chicken/egg salad 
  • Fried fish for grilled fish seasoned with lemon slices and herbs 
  • Whole milk for 1% or 2%. (Skim is fine, but that can be a stretch when used to whole milk.) 
  • Cheese crackers or cracker mix for air-popped popcorn seasoned with nutritional yeast 
  • Fruit canned in syrup for fruit canned in water or juice 
  • Mild cheddar cheese for a more flavorful cheese that requires a smaller amount such as feta, sharp cheddar, or goat cheese 
  • Soda for fizzy water 
  • Energy drinks for a nap and a better sleep routine 

It can seem daunting to make a shift in your nutrition habits. We have some "Pro Tips" to help you stay positive and motivated on your journey:  

  • Focus on all the foods that DO support heart health.  
  • Take your time to develop these habits - ONE at a time.  
  • Change is a marathon, not a sprint - slow and steady is the way to win this race. 
  • Enlist others to join you. Change is a lot more fun with friends. 
  • Find different ways to measure your progress - lab work, exercise tolerance, how colorful the food on your plate is, energy levels… 
  • Celebrate your successes!  

By gradually moving your diet to a heart-healthy one, you decrease the risk and severity of heart disease. If most of your food choices support your heart health, you’re more likely to stick around for several more Februarys. And that's good because we kind of like you. xoxo 

Originally printed in the February 2022 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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