Heart Healthy Foods

Heart Healthy Foods

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020408HEALTH.jpgThere are so many fads, diets and pills today it’s hard to keep up with them all. As we struggle to shed pounds, we often overlook the basic fundamentals of healthy eating and exercise. What’s more often overlooked is the fact that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States. Take a look at the numbers:
• 1 in 6 female deaths are due to coronary heart disease, compared to 1 in 30 deaths due to breast cancer.
• The most recent studies show that cardiovascular disease causes one female death per minute!

Watching your diet is a great way to keep your heart healthy, but there are certain areas to pay close attention to. Even if you think you are not at risk for heart disease, there is no time like the present to avoid becoming just another statistic.

  Three factors play a tremendous role in overall heart health: sodium, cholesterol and fat — particularly saturated fat. The main idea is to avoid these three things:

  1. Cholesterol: as repulsive as this sounds, cholesterol is a waxy material manufactured by the body and is also present in our diet in foods of animal origin. Cholesterol is actually necessary to build cells and produce certain hormones, so our livers will make as much as we need. Cholesterol is only found in foods made with fish, eggs, meat, poultry, dairy or other animal products, so read your nutrition labels for any hidden ingredients. Fish, poultry and wild game are usually the least of the evils while other meats and cheeses are high on the fat and cholesterol scale. Watch out — egg yolks, shrimp and organ meats (sorry all the liver and onions fans out there) are low in fat, but extremely high in cholesterol. In addition to watching your cholesterol intake, add more fruits, veggies and whole grains to your diet. Increasing the amount of fiber in your diet not only cleans your pipes, but it can also help decrease your cholesterol level. Here’s how it works: soluble fiber binds with cholesterol and eradicates it from your body; insoluble fiber promotes regularity, thus flushing the waste out of your system — no pun intended. Apples, broccoli, beans, lentils, oatmeal, prunes, seeds, other fruits and veggies with edible skins and milled flaxseed are excellent sources of high fiber.
  2. Fat: ladies, listen up! We need fat in our diet. However, it’s certain kinds and proper amounts that do our bodies good. Monounsaturated (olive, peanut and canola oil) and polyunsaturated (sunflower, soybean and flaxseed oil) fats may actually help control your cholesterol. Also known as healthy fats, you can find them in foods such as nuts, sunflower and sesame seeds, olives and avocados.
  3. Sodium: most women know that high sodium equals water retention. However, salt is a mineral we need to control the amount of water in our bodies. Too much sodium can affect our blood pressure, making our hearts work harder.

Unfortunately, salt is found in everything we eat — even fresh fruits and veggies. It’s really the added salt from processed foods or our own saltshaker that is the problem. Use spices and herbs to season your food — they add scrumptious flavors and are great salt substitutes. Also, processed and canned foods, as well as frozen dinners, tend to be full of sodium. Once again, be sure to read your nutrition labels.

Read the Label
Foods with the American Heart Association approval label are ideal items to have in our grocery carts, but not everything we buy has that handy-dandy red heart to help us. A good rule of thumb is to read the entire label. It might say “low fat” or “light,” but it can still be jam packed with empty calories or even contain a significantly high amount of fat.

Pay attention to the serving size as well. It is unbelievable how often we eat more than the recommended serving size without realizing it, ultimately increasing our fat and sodium intake — not good for improving our hearts!

Don’t let the “0 trans fat” label fool you either! Trans fats have actually been banned in many cities, and the list is still growing. Beginning in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration required trans fat content to be put on the label. But just because the label says “0 Trans Fat” doesn’t mean there isn’t any or it’s healthy. You would be surprised to find out how many packages say that magical phrase, but actually have atrocious nutrition labels.

According to the Ban Trans Fats Web site, if there is less than .5 grams of trans fats, it can be expressed as "zero" on the label. Look for the words “partially hydrogenated” on the label. If they show up in the0208_INSTORY_makebelieveball.gif ingredients list, you can be sure there are trans fats, no matter what the front of the package says. Ban Trans Fats is a non-profit California-based organization. According to their Web site, their goal “is to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils from all food products.”

Making the Change

When changing to a more heart healthy diet, remember that it takes some getting used to. Sometimes it helps to make slow changes to
eventually find a palette-pleasing diet that is surprisingly good for you. Experimenting with different seasonings and herbs like you are the next Martha Stewart or adding unusual veggies to dishes can make meal times enjoyable and tasty.

As with any change to better your health, it is a lifestyle change. You still don’t have to be afraid to indulge on that slice of rich chocolate cake for your birthday — look at the big picture. Your overall diet has improved.

Lastly, don't be afraid to take a proactive approach and get advice on how to improve your individual cardiovascular health. Talk to your doctor about your heart health and how to make changes that will protect against cardiovascular diseases, and ultimately, prolong your life.

For heart healthy recipes, click here for numerous American Heart Association-approved dishes.