Eat Your Way to a Healthier Heart
By Tim Barker, Editorial Contributor
With our hectic lifestyles, it’s easy to forget the dangers of convenient food. You grab breakfast in the car on the way to school or work. Then you snag a microwaved frozen lunch between meetings. And you top it off with dinner takeout from your favorite restaurant.
Undoubtedly, these shortcuts are saving time. But at what cost to your health? What’s worrisome is that these processed foods and much of what you buy at restaurants – particularly fast-food – are high in sodium and saturated fats.
“Eating too much of this stuff can create a number of threats to your heart, including hypertension and high cholesterol,” says Dr. Michael A. Malone, a board-certified cardiologist with Bayfront Health St. Petersburg Medical Group Cardiology.
The key to heart-healthier eating is building a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains and lean proteins. Consider two diets that are recommended by the American Heart Association.
The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet both offer easy-to-follow plans that will benefit your heart. Both prioritize whole foods and heart-healthy fats over processed food. They’re also flexible and designed to prevent heart disease and stroke.
The DASH diet is based on research by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. It aims to lower or maintain blood pressure levels by slashing sodium intake. You’ll eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while cutting back on full-fat dairy products, high-fat meats, sugar, alcohol and tropical oils.
As with many eating plans, the DASH diet provides specific guidelines regarding portion and serving size. A 2,000-calories-a-day diet looks like this:
- 6 to 8 servings of grains, mostly whole grains
- 4 to 5 servings of vegetables
- 4 to 5 servings of fruit
- 2 to 3 servings of dairy
- 2 to 3 servings of fats and oils
- Up to 1 serving of lean meat, poultry or fish
- 4 to 5 servings per week of nuts, seeds and legumes
- Up to 5 servings of sweets a week
The Mediterranean diet is inspired by the eating habits of people in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including Spain, Greece and Italy. These regions have substantially lower rates of chronic disease and longer life expectancies, with studies suggesting that diet plays a major role. The Mediterranean diet recommends:
- 7 to 10 servings a day of fruit and vegetables
- Whole grain breads, pasta and cereal
- Seafood twice a week (but not fried)
- Olive oil instead of butter or margarine
- Low-fat Greek yogurt and small portions of cheese
- Salt in moderation
- Limited red meat
Other key elements of this diet are sharing meals with friends and family, drinking red wine in moderation and enjoying physical activities.
Steps for Success
Stay on track with either of these heart-healthy diets by following common-sense steps:
Do your homework. Talk to your doctor and familiarize yourself with the recommended foods and meal schedule, making necessary modifications due to allergies or preferences.
Plan weekly meals and snacks. Prepare your menu before going grocery shopping. And plan for those times when you’ll need the convenience of restaurant food. Know which places have healthy options that work with your diet.
Be patient. Your body might not immediately adjust to the added fiber and decreased sugar.
Add in exercise. Even a brisk walk around the block will boost your cardiovascular strength. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes a week.
DASH Diet Serving Sizes
1 serving of grains:
- 1 slice of bread
- 1 ounce of dry cereal
- A half-cup of cooked rice, pasta or cereal
1 serving of vegetables:
- 1 cup raw, leafy vegetables
- A half-cup of raw or cooked vegetables
- A half-cup of vegetable juice
1 serving of fruits:
- 1 medium fruit
- A quarter-cup of dried fruit
- A half-cup of fresh, frozen or canned fruit
- A half-cup of fruit juice
1 serving of dairy:
- 1 cup of milk or yogurt
- 1.5 ounces of cheese
1 serving of lean meats, poultry and fish:
- 1 ounce of cooked meats, poultry or fish
- 1 egg
1 serving of fats and oils:
- 1 teaspoon of soft margarine or vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons of salad dressing
1 serving of nuts, seeds and legumes:
- A third-cup or 1.5 ounces of nuts
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
- 2 tablespoons or a half-ounce of seeds
- A half-cup of cooked legumes (dry beans and peas)
1 serving of sweets and added sugars:
- 1 tablespoon of sugar, jelly or jam
- A half-cup of sorbet or gelatin
- 1 cup of lemonade
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