Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. What’s more, diabetes and obesity (both of which lead to heart disease) rates have reached epidemic proportions. Yet all three of these conditions can be prevented and even reversed with lifestyle changes that include healthy eating, regular exercise, and stress reduction. The following advice will help guide you on your way to heart health.
For many people, the word fat is a four-letter word. For a long time, all fats were depicted as bad and the low-fat diet was praised as the heart-healthy way to eat. We now know that some fats are good for you—and for your heart. The omega-3 fats found in cold-water fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia are beneficial fats that help balance the unhealthy omega-6 fats found so commonly in the SAD diet. Fish are the best source of these fats because they contain heart-healthy omega-3s. If you aren’t a fan of fish, you can take a high-quality, purified fish oil supplement instead.
To get a good idea of the total amount of sugar you absorb from the foods you eat, you need to consider the sugars that come from digested carbohydrates. After all, carbohydrates break down into sugars in the digestive tract. Try this simple calculation to determine how much total sugar you are really eating:
- (Total carbohydrates minus fiber) divided by 5 = Total teaspoons of sugar
Here are a couple of examples to see how this works. A medium apple contains 25 grams total carbohydrates and 4 grams dietary fiber. Let’s plug it in:
- 25 grams carbs – 4 grams fiber ÷ 5 = 4.2 teaspoons sugar
Now let’s look at blackberries. One cup of blackberries contains 15 grams total carbohydrates and 8 grams dietary fiber. Let’s plug it in:
- 15 grams carbs – 8 grams fiber ÷ 5 = 1.4 teaspoons sugar
If you have markers of poor heart health—such as high cholesterol, blood pressure, or blood sugar—try to keep your total daily teaspoons of sugar under 10.
Fiber is one of the most heart-healthy foods you can eat, yet the average American eats less than half the recommended 20–35 grams of fiber daily. Eating plenty of non-starchy vegetables and fruits is the best way to reach this goal, but even with a healthy diet it can be difficult to eat so much fiber. A fiber supplement is a great way to help reach your total amount of recommended daily fiber.
Protein is an important part of a healthy diet. To round out your heart-health benefits, eat lean proteins like fish, poultry, grass-fed beef, eggs, nuts, and seeds. Every meal should contain protein to help keep your body and brain nourished, your metabolism running well, and your blood sugar levels balanced.
You may not realize it, but your digestive symptoms are sending you important information. Instead of listening to these cues our bodies send, we tend to simply quiet the symptoms with over-the-counter medications (or we ignore them altogether). But if you continuously experience digestive symptoms, your body is telling you to make a change. Keep a food journal to track your food intake along with any symptoms you experience. In this way, you will begin to notice patterns that will allow you to make changes that improve your overall health—digestive and beyond.
Most people consider saturated fats as unhealthy fats that should be avoided. But truth is, when it comes to heart health, the high consumption of omega-6 fats in the Standard American Diet (SAD—an apt acronym) is where we need to make a change. After the industrial revolution, the consumption of omega-6 fats greatly increased due to the wide availability of foods cooked with fats including safflower oil, soybean oil, and most vegetable oils. The high consumption of these fats, which continues to this day, increases inflammation in the body that leads to heart disease.
There is really no good reason to eat foods with added sugar. The body can obtain all the sugar it needs from a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Sugary foods and beverages are a major contributing factor to the obesity, diabetes, and heart disease epidemic currently facing Americans. By cutting out added sugars altogether, you will greatly improve your heart health and overall health.
What most people do not consider is the sugar that comes from the breakdown and digestion of starchy carbohydrates. Foods like bread, pasta, and cereal actually convert into sugar in the digestive tract, which contributes to increased blood sugar levels, weight gain, and the associated diabetes and heart disease. The body needs sugar as an energy source, of course, but it needs far less than the SAD diet delivers. By cutting out, or greatly reducing, starchy carbohydrates, heart health can be improved.
In today’s world, the fast pace we all keep often means our meals get eaten in a rush or not at all. Breakfast is one meal that is often skipped due to a lack of time, but breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Without fuel to get the body moving and the brain thinking well, we inevitably end up snacking later on the wrong foods. This imbalance of energy intake on a regular basis adds up to poor eating habits, weight gain, and ultimately, poor heart health.
Although alcohol consumption in moderation is touted as a heart-healthy practice, it can easily get out of control. Moderate alcohol consumption means one to two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women. (A drink is one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. wine, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits, or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits.) Drinking in excess of this amount increases the risk of high blood pressure, obesity, and stroke, all heart disease-related conditions. If you do drink in moderation, red wine is the most heart-healthy choice.
Follow this advice for a healthier heart and healthier you. Instead of viewing these guidelines as a new diet, instead try to make changes that become incorporated into your healthy eating lifestyle. Instead of telling yourself, “I’m on a diet,” say, “This is simply how I eat.” Your approach to these changes is as important as the changes themselves. Your heart will thank you.
More expert advice about Heart Disease
Photo Credits: Heart by Flickr: Phillie Casablanca; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com