February has been designated American Heart Month to help raise awareness of heart disease and promote ways to maintain a healthy heart. One of the ways we’re all aware of is to eat a “heart-healthy diet.” However, few of us really know what that means or even pay much attention to our heart—that is, unless we have to because something, unfortunately, has gone wrong with it.
Most of us do know that a diet high in fat—bacon, doughnuts, cheese, etc.—is not ideal. But since so many of these fatty foods are also delicious, it can be difficult to change our habits and make healthier choices. Still, as the saying goes, it’s never too late to try. So, whether you have years of unhealthy eating under your belt or you’ve already made some positive changes that you’d like to build upon, here are some tips for heart-healthy eating:
Avoid portion distortion
You may (or may not!) already be making healthy food choices, but how much you’re eating really counts as well. Overloading your plate, going back for seconds or thirds, or eating until you’re stuffed leads to consuming more calories than you need—even when the foods themselves are relatively healthy. Use smaller plates, limit your servings, and commit to no second helpings. Also, keep in mind that a three-ounce serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards, and a half to third cup is approximately equal to the size of a hockey puck.
Choose foods wisely
If you haven’t been making healthy food choices, now is the time to start. Fill that smaller plate with extra vegetables or salad instead of more meat and starches, and finish your meal with fruit as dessert instead of ice cream, cookies, cake, or pie.
In fact, fruits and vegetables are always good choices, being low in calories, rich in fiber, and naturally low in fat and sodium. Keep vegetables cut up in your fridge for easy snacking, and keep fruit in a bowl on your counter so you remember to eat it. When planning meals, choose recipes that include lots of vegetables, such as stir fry and salads. Remember, you can choose either fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.
In addition to putting fruits and veggies front and center, choose plenty of whole grains, such as whole-grain bread, high-fiber cereal, brown rice, whole-grain pasta (I know, but it’s come along way—believe me!), oatmeal, and popcorn. I also recommend choosing fish (but not fried) at least twice a week. You might even consider implementing “meatless Mondays,” choosing a meatless entrée recipe such as black bean burgers. They may not be much to look at, but they really are delicious.
Be sparing with sodium
This recommendation can be a bit confusing. We do need sodium in our diet—just not as much as we tend to get. A no-sodium diet, however, is neither easy to achieve nor necessary. Most Americans should limit their sodium intake to 2,000 mg per day (666 mg per meal for three meals a day), and those with heart disease should shoot for under 1,500 mg. Just one teaspoon of table salt or sea salt has around 1,900 mg of sodium, so go easy when it comes to salting foods while cooking and at the table.
Again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium and should be chosen more often. On the other hand, meat naturally contains sodium, so you should limit your portions to no more than six ounces per day. Also, avoid electrolyte-replenishment drinks, such as Gatorade®, and limit canned and prepared meals, which may contain a lot of sodium.
As I like to say, what’s really important is eating healthy on most days, knowing that you may allow yourself a high-fat indulgence every once in a while. Enjoying the occasional serving of French fries or Krispie Kreme® doughnut won’t derail your healthy eating plan as long as it’s not a daily, or even weekly, occurrence.
The key is planning and avoiding trying to take on too much too soon. Changing habits is hard, so pick one or two things you know you can do and make sensible substitutions where you can. Once you know which foods you can eat, grocery shopping will be much easier and meal preparation will be a snap.
Now you’re well on your way to a heart-healthy diet!
Laurie Syring, RD/LD, is Clinical Nutrition Manager at ProMedica Flower Hospital. ❦