From our experts: Jessi Holden is a registered dietitian/nutritionist at Mary Free Bed.
February is American Heart Month, and there’s no better time to discuss heart health. Nutrition is a critical component of a healthy lifestyle and a vital way to fight heart disease. Here are some ways to ramp up your heart health:
1. Vary your fruits and vegetables
This one never gets old! A healthy variety of fruits and vegetables not only increases your fiber intake but also improves your vitamin intake. You can improve your heart health simply by adding more color to your plate.
2. Whole grains matter
Whole grains improve our cholesterol levels due to their fiber-rich content. Read labels and make sure the first ingredient says “whole.” Or try swapping white-flour grains such as rice or pasta for whole grains (or go half-and-half!). Grains provide direct energy for the muscles and brain to function efficiently.
3. Lean protein sources
Fish, chicken, turkey and eggs all are excellent sources of protein. Other healthy sources include beans, lentils, and soy products. Red and processed meat (sausage, bacon, etc.) are slightly higher in saturated fat. You don’t need to eliminate them, but varying the amount you eat can help reduce saturated fat intake.
4. Fat is a friend
There are loads of heart-healthy fats that not only fight inflammation but also improve cholesterol levels (raise good HDL cholesterol and lower not-so-good LDL levels). Examples include nuts, legumes, olives, olive oil, fish, avocado, flax meal and hemp hearts.
5. Try seasonings besides salt
We do need some sodium in our food, but try cooking with less and add more flavors using herbs and spices. Also, read your label. If the serving of sodium is 20% or above, that’s a high source of sodium per serving. This is an indicator to consider your portion size or look for an alternative that is slightly lower (5-10%) in sodium per serving.
6. Check ingredients for partially or fully hydrogenated oil
This is a trans-fat, which is something we encourage minimal amounts of. You’ll find this in many highly processed foods, certain margarines and some specialty baked goods.
7. Balance your plate
Aim for a variety of foods on your plate and consider the MyPlate method to guide your portions of each food group.
8. Get in touch with added sugar
Nutrition labels are improving in terms of being able to identify the amount of added versus natural sugar in a product. If the label lists “added sugar,” divide the grams by four. This converts grams to teaspoons, which is an easier amount to relate to. The current recommendation is nine teaspoons for men and six for women.
Consider tracking the amount of added sugar you’re consuming and reducing it little by little. Trying to eliminate it completely typically backfires, and it’s safe to enjoy in moderation and balance with other foods.
9. Adult beverages
There’s a lot of research to support the consumption of red wine, but still in moderation. Keep drinks to one per day if you’re a woman or two if you’re a man. Don’t forget to hydrate with water in between beverages and throughout the day.
10. Slow down
We often are eating in a hurry or while we’re distracted by working, watching TV or scrolling through social media. Make it a point to have some meals or snacks that are eaten more slowly, while sitting, so you can start to reconnect with your food and body.
Try practicing at least one of these tips today. The motto I use for Mary Free Bed’s Weight Management Program is “Progress not Perfection.” Don’t be hard on yourself for not eating “perfectly.” There’s no such thing. Making small changes now toward sustainable behaviors will not only improve your heart health but also your confidence in your ability to maintain a healthier lifestyle.
Mary Free Bed has a variety of Outpatient Nutrition Services available. Our registered dietitian nutritionists are available to help you build sustainable, doable and individualized goals. Contact us for one-on-one nutrition therapy or if you’re interested in the Weight Management Program. For more information, call 616.840.8908.