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Protect your heart! Proactive lifestyle changes you can make now that can save your life later

April 21, 2014

Years of working as a dietitian in cardiac rehabilitation have taught me that heart disease can afflict anyone – from the very old to the very young. Most people in cardiac rehab do not make the necessary lifestyle changes until after the fact … after the heart attack or stroke. My advice? Don’t wait until you’re a statistic, make better choices now!

Be aware and choose foods that will enhance your heart health. Eating heart healthy is learning not only what to avoid, but more importantly, what to include in your diet.

Start by reducing saturated fat

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. You can find saturated fat marbled through red meat and processed meats, in chicken skin and whole milk dairy products like cheese, cream, cream cheese, sour cream and ice cream. Saturated fats increase the bad (LDL) cholesterol. The best ways to limit saturated fat include:
  • Choose lean cuts of red meat like sirloin, tenderloin and round
  • Choose red meat ≤ 3 times /week (anything that isn’t fish or chicken)

  • Use low fat (1%) or fat free dairy products. This includes selecting low fat cheeses, yogurt, cream cheese and sour cream.
  • Avoid processed meats
  • Choose chicken breast without skin
  • Eat ≤ 6 ounces meat/fish or chicken each day
  • Enjoy more meatless meals. Select meals with vegetable protein sources, such as edamame, tofu and other soy foods may help to lower cholesterol

Replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats

Foods with unsaturated fats include canola oil, olive oil, avocados, fish, nuts and seeds. Fish is an excellent choice because it is low in saturated fat and most fish are low in total fat. The fish that are higher in fat, like salmon, contain beneficial omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3s are essential fatty acids that you can only get from your diet. Omega 3s can decrease the risk of sudden cardiac death, decrease blood clotting, and lower blood pressure and triglycerides. Try to eat 3 ½ ounces of fatty fish two or more times per week. Also include nuts or seeds like almonds, walnuts, pecans or sunflower seeds on a weekly basis. Make sure to watch portion sizes even when choosing the right fats because fat calories can add up quickly.

Don’t forget about fiber

Whole grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables are important sources of vitamins, Fiberminerals and fiber and should be included in your diet on a daily basis. The recommended amount of fiber a day is between 20 to 35 grams. Select at least three servings per day of whole grains to help meet fiber goals. Whole grains like barley and oatmeal have soluble fiber, making them LDL cholesterol lowering power-houses. Include brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, rye bread and whole wheat breads and pasta. In addition to fiber, fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients and antioxidants, which help on a cellular level to fight heart disease and cancers. Eat ≥ 4.5 cups fruits and vegetables each day. Think dark colors like sweet potato, red pepper, kale, spinach, blueberries and cherries. Increase fiber gradually and drink plenty of water. This will help your body adjust to the change and can prevent gas or feeling uncomfortable.

Another plant based method for lowering cholesterol involves plant sterols or plant stanols. Plant sterols and stanols occur naturally in small amounts in grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. They have cholesterol-lowering properties and manufacturers have added them to foods. You can get stanols or sterols from foods such as margarine spreads, orange juice, cereals, granola bars and supplements. The recommended amount is two grams/day to elicit an LDL cholesterol lowering response.

Cut out junk foods to help lose weight, lower LDL and raise HDL

Weight loss helps to lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and raise good cholesterol (HDL), while exercise helps to raise HDL cholesterol and to maintain a weight loss. To help weight loss efforts, limit the extra calories from sugar sweetened beverages, alcohol and junk foods.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limitingsugar sweetened beverages to ≤ 450 calories per week or 36 ounces (3 cans of soda/week). AHA also recommends no more than one alcoholic drink/day for women and two drinks/day for men. Although the resveratrol in red wine can help to increase HDL levels, it is important not to over consume alcohol- and if you currently do not drink alcohol, do not start. Another source of un-needed calories comes from fried foods, chips, cookies, and pastries—they are all foods that provide little nutrition and contain trans fats. Trans fats lower good HDL cholesterol and raise the bad LDL cholesterol. Many processed foods use “hydrogenated” vegetable oils that contain trans fats, so check nutrition labels for the word “hydrogenated.”

Keep any eye on sodium intake

Limit consumption to less than 2,300 mg a day — or 1,500 mg if you’re age 51 or older, or if you are African-American, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. Sodium is contained in most foods (vegetables, meats, dairy products, bread products and shellfish) so it adds up easily. Select the least processed foods possible, avoid the salt shaker and read food labels. A food is considered low sodium if it has <140 mg sodium/ serving.

Protect your heart and your health by making changes to your lifestyle now—while you are healthy. Don’t wait until it is too late. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” –Benjamin Franklin

Learn more here: Guide to Lowering Your Cholesterol with TLC