By Sandra Gordon
Whether you’re curled up with a book or sprinting for a bus, your heart works hard for you—a healthy one beats 100,000 times and pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood daily. To help it do its job–and prevent heart disease—the number one killer—take stock of your diet.
“What you eat and how you prepare food can strongly affect your blood cholesterol, your blood pressure and the propensity for plaque to build up in your arteries over the long run,” says Lori Mosca, M.D., author of Heart to Heart: A Personal Plan for Creating a Heart-Healthy Family. Considering that plenty of not-so-good-for-you foods are just a drive-thru away, read on for the key nutrition rules that will help you eat to beat heart disease.
Target saturated and trans fats
To keep your arteries clear, cut down on saturated fat and trans fats. Both types raise your body’s level of “bad” LDL cholesterol—much more so than any cholesterol you get from food. When too much LDL cholesterol circulates in the bloodstream, it can slowly build up on the walls of arteries feeding your heart and brain, forming thick, hard plaque. Trans fats also lower “good” HDL cholesterol, making them doubly bad for your heart. HDL cholesterol is beneficial because it reduces plaque buildup by ushering excess LDL cholesterol from artery walls and back to the liver, where it’s passed from the body.
Food Fix: Aim to have no more than 10 percent of your calories come saturated fat. “Limit butter, vegetable shortening and lard in cooking,” says Bethany Thayer, RD. Instead, use olive and canola oils, which both contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Because these healthy fats are still high in calories (120 calories per tablespoon), go easy to avoid weight gain, which is an independent risk factor for heart disease. Also, instead of butter or regular margarine, consider spreads such as Take Control, Benecol and Benecol Light, which are enriched with plant sterols or stanols–compounds that can inhibit the absorption of cholesterol in the intestine, thereby lowering LDLs.
Other ways to trim saturated fats from your diet: Drink skim or low-fat milk and choose lean meats and skinless poultry, keeping servings to about the size of your palm. Finally, avoid processed cookies, crackers, chips and bakery products with trans fats (also called “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” fat or oil) in the ingredient list). Check the nutrition label to find snacks that are low in both saturated and have 0 trans fat. Keep in mind, however, that foods labeled “0 trans fat” can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, which can add up if you eat lots of 0 trans fat foods.
Eat more whole grains
Whole-grain bread and cereals as well as beans, barley and lentils are good sources of vitamins A, B and E. These act as antioxidants, which may help neutralize free radicals, unstable oxygen molecules in the blood that may contribute to plague buildup in the arteries. Whole grains are also “packed with fiber, which is potent in lowering LDL,” says nutrition researcher Wahida Karmally, DrPH, RD.
Food Fix: Choose whole grain cereal such as instant or steel-cut oatmeal and opt for whole grain bread as often as possible. Aim for at least three (one-ounce) servings of whole grains per day. To spot whole grain products, look for whole on the nutrition label, as in “whole wheat,” “whole corn,” or “whole rye.” Also, check the fiber content. Look for foods with 2 or more grams of fiber per serving.
Pack in produce
Fruits and vegetables are filled with fiber as well as beta-carotene and the antioxidant vitamins A and C. Some also contain folate, a B vitamin that may help reduce the amino acid, homocysteine, high blood levels of which may have been linked with an increased risk of heart attack. They’re also natural sources of plant sterols. Aim for two cups of fruit and two and one half cups of vegetables each day. Less than a third of us eat enough produce to protect our hearts.
Food Fix: Top off your morning cereal or yogurt with fruit and add it to homemade breads, cakes and cookies. Add vegetables to sauces, stews, meat loaf, pizza and soup. “Store cut-up vegetables and fruit at eye level in the fridge so they’re the first thing you see when you open the door,” suggests Thayer.
Go fishing twice a week
Fish, especially cold-water fish like salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel and herring, are rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentenoic acid (EPA), heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce the rate of plaque buildup, decrease triglycerides and slightly lower blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends eating two fish meals per week. If you’re pregnant, the FDA recommends eating eight to 12 ounces of fish per week and focus on those low in mercury, including shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish, cod, flatfish and haddock.
Avoid tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.
Food Fix: Try adding an easy-to-make fish like salmon to your family’s weekly menu. If you just don’t like fish, try incorporating flaxseed oil. It’s a rich source of heart-healthy alpha-linolenic acid (LNA). One teaspoon of the oil a day is all you need to get a beneficial dose (1.5 grams). But since flaxseed oil breaks down with heat, don’t use it for cooking.
Ease up on eggs
While it’s true that dietary cholesterol doesn’t affect your blood cholesterol to the extent that saturated and trans fats can, the dietary cholesterol in egg yolks can add up (a typical yolk contains 71 percent of the daily limit of 300 milligrams), and may contribute to high levels of LDL in your body. That’s why many nutritionists are conservative when it comes to recommending a daily limit for egg consumption. “Don’t have more than one egg yolk a day,” advises Melissa Ohlson, MS, RD. (If you already have high cholesterol, however, Ohlson recommends limiting eggs to no more than three per week.)
Food Fix: If you’re an egg lover or bake or cook with eggs, keep dietary cholesterol intake low by using just the egg whites or opting for commercially prepared egg substitutes whenever possible.
Develop a taste for dark chocolate
It contains flavanols—antioxidants in the flavonoid family that may increase blow flow in arteries, reduce the stickiness of blood platelets and lower blood pressure. One study found that people who consumed 1.6 ounces of high-flavonoid dark chocolate daily for two weeks experienced an eightfold increase in the ability of their arteries to dilate, which improves blood flow to the heart.
Food Fix: Even though it’s healthier than milk chocolate, dark chocolate is still a high-calorie treat. For occasional chocolate cravings or even just a small hit every day, “check the label for chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cocoa,” says cardiovascular researcher Mary B. Engler, PhD.