901 Health: Ten Tips for Heart-Healthy Eating – Memphis Magazine

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February is full of heart-shaped cards and chocolate boxes, but it’s also a smart time to consider the health of your actual heart. Heart disease is the most common cause of death in the United States. Science has learned that, like cancer, genetics play a role in who suffers from cardiovascular ailments. But even more so than cancer, diet is a big factor in who develops heart trouble and who avoids it. If you have been diagnosed with a cardiovascular disease, your doctor can give you more precise dietary guidelines based on your specific health issues. If you’re just looking to help your ticker keep ticking smoothly, here are a few tips based on the latest science — and good old-fashioned common sense.

1 — Watch Your Sodium Intake

Too much sodium in your diet raises your blood pressure, which can lead to heart attacks or strokes. You don’t have to cut out all salt, but being conscious of your sodium intake is a smart move. Restaurant food and packaged foods are common sources of unexpected sodium, so you can have much more control over your sodium intake if you opt to cook at home. Many companies (such as Penzey’s Spices) offer low-sodium, flavor-packed spice mixes.

2 — Eat More Fruits, Nuts, and Veggies

This is just all-purpose good advice. Make sure every meal comes with at least one vegetable. Leafy greens like spinach contain nitrates which relax blood vessels. Try keeping some almonds or grapes around for snacking instead of chips. Fresh is better, but frozen and canned vegetables are fine — as long as you pay attention to sodium levels, and avoid added sugar. Breaded and fried veggies defeat the purpose.

3 — Whole Grains

When it comes to grains, the less refined the better. Refining grains (for instance, milling wheat into white flour) breaks down the plant’s natural fibers. More fiber means lower levels of cholesterol. Whole grain bread is not only good for you, it’s more flavorful than white bread. Try substituting brown rice for white, and exploring the world of other whole grains, like barley and quinoa.

4 — Oatmeal for Breakfast

There’s a reason nutritionists love oatmeal. The beta-glucan in a regular bowl of oats can reduce cholesterol, ease inflammation, and stabilize blood sugar levels. You’ll also feel full for longer, which can help reduce food cravings. For maximum benefit, avoid instant oatmeal, which is the most processed version.

5 — Find the Right Fats

Saturated fats mostly derive from the meat of land animals and dairy products, while unsaturated fats come from plants and fish. The debate on exactly how much and what kinds of fats you should include in your diet is robust and ongoing, but two things are certain: Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in salmon and walnuts, are good for your heart and brain, while trans fats, such as those found in fried foods, increase your cholesterol levels.

6 — Oils Matter

For five decades, the medical consensus has been moving towards the Mediterranean diet. Italy, for example, has a much lower rate of heart disease than the rest of the Western countries, despite the higher prevalence of some habits like smoking that can cause heart disease. Many scientists have tried to tease apart the region’s different dietary factors to determine which ones are the most important, but one thing is clear: The countries that show the biggest population benefits from the Mediterranean diet are also places where olive trees grow. Use extra-virgin olive oil in your cooking whenever possible; peanut and avocado oil are also acceptable. Avoid highly refined products such as commercial canola and vegetable oils, and anything marked “partially hydrogenated.”

7 — No Tobacco

Everyone knows by now that smoking causes cancer. But habitually consuming tobacco in any form is also a major risk factor for heart and cardiovascular disease. Smoking both raises blood pressure and narrows blood vessels. Heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, peripheral artery disease — you name it, tobacco causes it. It’s 2024. Why are you still smoking tobacco?

8 — Alcohol

One of the biggest questions of the last couple of decades of health research is the role of alcohol in heart health. Doctors agree that excessive alcohol use — more than two drinks a day for men, one for women — is bad for you. But what about moderate drinking? The “one glass of red wine a day” guideline has been repeatedly challenged, but the protective effect stubbornly refuses to disappear from statistical studies. The mechanism remains a mystery. Is it resveratrol, a micronutrient found in grapes? Or is does the stress relief of an evening come-down ritual outweigh the negative effects from low doses of alcohol? Decide what’s best for you in consult with your doctor.

9 — The Less Processed, the Better

A flurry of recent studies indicate that much of the problem with the Western diet comes from our mass-produced food culture. True, many if not most foods we eat are processed to some degree, such as pasteurization. But foods packaged for shelf stability contain high amounts of sodium and preservatives, and added sugar is always a good selling point for the taste buds. The worst are the “ultra-processed,” which include sugary drinks and candy which are formulated for maximum profitability, not maximum nutrition.

10 — Moderation in All Things

Unless you’re under strict doctor’s orders, you don’t have to give up all red meat and butter. Just eat less of them. Maintaining cardiovascular health is a long-term prospect, so what matters is your average consumption over the long run. Cultivating good habits gets easier over time. If you want to reduce your sodium intake by not adding salt to your meals, things might taste bland at first. But after a while, you’ll get used to it, and heavily salted food will taste metallic. Once you start paying attention to portion size, some restaurant meals will begin to seem excessive. Don’t beat yourself up if you crave a burger. Just practice moderation in all things — except tobacco. Cut that stuff out completely.

Sources: Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, and the American Heart Association’s “2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health.”

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