Eating Your Way to a Healthier Heart

By Kristin B. Ford, Editorial Contributor

Effective weapons for fighting cardiovascular disease may be as close as your kitchen. Two popular food plans — the Mediterranean and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) — are recognized for keeping your heart well while promoting overall health.

The Mediterranean diet blends healthy eating with the flavors and cooking methods of Italy and Greece. The main components are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil. The Mediterranean diet also allows dairy products and wine to be consumed in moderate amounts. Eating red meat is limited.

The DASH diet is an eating plan aimed at lowering blood pressure, which can reduce your risk of strokes and heart attacks. It is a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables and low in sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol. Instead of red meat, it favors low-fat dairy, poultry, fish and beans as sources of protein. The daily amount of sodium is limited to about a teaspoon of salt (2,300 mg). Those with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease as well as anyone older than 50 should aim for no more than 1,500 mg. Reducing sodium intake has been shown to help lower blood pressure in adults with hypertension, according to the American Heart Association.

When trying to decide which diet to follow, Orlando Health registered dietitian Melissa Perry recommends first considering whether you have hypertension or other health conditions. If not, look at which foods are more appealing long-term.

Avoiding Roadblocks

Two common complaints about following any specific diet are that they are time-consuming and expensive to prepare. Perry’s suggestions for avoiding these potential roadblocks include:

  • Plan your meals ahead of time.

  • Keep unsalted nuts or seeds, fresh fruit or vegetables on hand as an easy grab-and-go snack.

  • Opt for whole grains in place of white or processed grains.

  • Cook with salt-free herbs and spices instead of salt.

  • Buy fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season or purchase frozen fruits and vegetables (without added sauces) that will last longer.

  • When purchasing canned beans or legumes, choose unsalted or low-sodium options.

  • Remember that beans and legumes are an affordable source of fiber and protein.

“Choosing heart-healthy options can be easy when you know what to look for,” Perry says. “The American Heart Association places a heart checkmark on food packaging to symbolize heart-healthy products that meet criteria for trans fat, saturated fat and sodium in a single serving of food.”

An Added Benefit: Losing Weight

Protecting your heart and losing weight don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“Heart-healthy diets may aid in weight loss, especially when processed grains and sweets are replaced with a diet enriched in fruits, vegetables and fiber. Since you can eat a variety of foods on each diet, weight management may be easier to sustain with long-term compliance,” she says.

“The Mediterranean diet contains a relatively high amount of calories from fat. The majority of the fat calories in this diet come from monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil. Fat does contain more calories, so if you are looking to lose weight, you will need to monitor your intake. Portion control is recommended to avoid excess calorie intake.”

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