You know that eating healthy is important for your heart, but what exactly does it mean to follow a “heart-healthy diet”? It certainly doesn’t mean you have to compromise taste, quit your favorite foods, or starve. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) compiled some basic guidelines to help Americans improve their health and lower their risk of heart disease. A plan entitled, the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC diet) makes very specific recommendations to fight cardiovascular disease and its associated chronic risk factors. If you ask me, everyone can benefit from a little “TLC”.
1. Trade saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol, for mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs and PUFAs) – Limit your total fat intake to 25-30% of your total calorie intake (no more than 50-60g fat for an 1800-calorie diet), and aim for less than 7-10% (14-20g) of your calories from saturated fat. Keep your dietary cholesterol intake to fewer than 200mg per day (one egg yolk contains ~210mg of cholesterol, 3 ounces chicken has ~75mg).
- Choose: Olive and canola oils, nuts, avocado, and fatty fish
- Limit: Butter, cheese, whole dairy, red meats, and foods containing palm oil, coconut oil and partially-hydrogenated oils, like margarines and commercially baked cakes, pastries and other baked goods.
2. Boost your fiber intake: Aim for 20-30 grams of fiber per day. A third of that should be soluble fiber, such as oat bran, has been shown to significantly lower cholesterol.
- Choose: Complex, fiber-containing carbohydrates like whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains (e.g. oatmeal, barley, popcorn, quinoa, whole wheat, bran cereals) and beans
- Limit: Refined grains where the fiber, along with essential vitamins and minerals have been stripped away (e.g. white rice, baked goods and cereals made with white/enriched flour)
3. Choose lean protein: So many Americans consume protein – specifically animal proteins like meat and dairy – in significant excess of their needs. While proteins are essential components of hormones, cells, enzymes, muscles, and are involved in a multitude of bodily functions – more is not always better. The average adult only needs between 40-70g per day (0.8g/kg body weight).
- Choose: Low fat (1% or skim) dairy, tofu/edamame, legumes (e.g. chickpeas, lentils, kidney and black beans), chicken/turkey breast, fatty fish (e.g. salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, sardines), nuts and eggs
- Limit: Red meat (e.g. lamb, pork, beef, veal), whole milk dairy, dark meat chicken/turkey, processed meats (hot dogs, deli meat, bacon, sausages).
4. Bring on the rainbow with fruits and vegetables: Not only do fruits and vegetables fill you up with fewer calories, they contain a plethora of chronic-disease fighting vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. Think of your fruits and veggies according to the rainbow (you know – red, orange, yellow, green, indigo, and violet) and try to eat at least one serving of each color daily.
- Choose: Load up on tomatoes, beets, squash, melon, carrots, asparagus, peppers, green beans, broccoli, Swiss chard, blueberries, blackberries, apples, oranges and eggplant
- Limit: Fruit juices (especially those with added sugar/corn syrup), canned fruits, starchy veggies (e.g. corn, potatoes, and peas)
5. Hold the salt: Too much sodium in your diet contributes to high blood pressure and increases your risk for heart disease. Avoid processed foods, ditch your salt shaker for herbs, spices, and aromatic veggies (e.g. garlic, shallots, onions, and peppers), and read your food labels to ensure you don’t exceed your quota.
- Choose: Fresh, whole foods – i.e. shop the outside of the grocery store and at farmers’ markets, cook with whole grains, and buy “No-Salt-Added” canned goods
- Limit: Processed and canned foods like frozen dinners, soy sauce and other condiments, cheese, pickled foods, deli meats
6. Get adequate vitamins B6, B12, C, and E, folate, calcium, magnesium, and potassium: If your diet consists of whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, nuts, and other lean proteins, you’re probably meeting your needs. Getting enough calcium may prove a little more difficult – read more here.
7. Get your lifestyle in line with your new eating habits:
- Maintain a healthy weight: If you are overweight – losing just 10lbs can lower your blood pressure by 10 points! Just be sure that your weight loss isn’t more than 2 lbs per week. Watch your portion sizes, eat smaller more frequent meals, and get moving.
- Stay active: Get 30-60 min moderate activity most days.
- Live “smoke-free”: If you smoke, quit. Period. Ask your primary healthcare provider for tips or find a support group to stand beside you as you fight the habit.
- Keep your cocktail practices in check: Limit your daily alcohol intake to 1 drink for women, 2 drinks for men. If you’re serious about heart health, make that drink a glass of red wine.
- Consider a fish oil supplement: If fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts aren’t on your list of favorite foods, taking fish oil might be a good idea (but, talk to your physician first, particularly if you take blood-thinning or anti-clotting medications).
- Don’t deprive yourself of your favorite (occasional) indulgences. One ounce of dark chocolate is an especially heart-healthy treat, and won’t break the calorie bank.
- Plan ahead: As Don Quixote once said, “He who is prepared has his battle half fought.” Set aside leftovers to take to work. Keep nuts, whole-grain granola bars, fruits and veggies in your bag or desk drawer.
Most importantly: Enjoy your food and your life.