cooking for a healthy heart

Though there’s so much talk about healthy eating these days, the incidence of heart disease remains high.

To cut down on your risk of heart attack or stroke, maintaining a healthy diet with regular exercise is the way to go. In addition to quitting smoking and cutting back big time on the drinking (if you haven’t already), it’s time to rework your diet.

Avoid pre-diabetic symptoms, obesity and high blood pressure now, and you will have a greater chance of avoiding more serious problems later, like potentially lethal heart attacks and strokes.

Though you might be reluctant to give up some of your favorite foods or cooking styles, a heart healthy diet is so nutritious, and it can be delicious, too! Here are some tips to help you out:

Cooking for a Healthy Heart

Ditch the red meat

rid of the red meat

Lean meats and high-protein veggie sources are great ways to replace the red meat in your diet. In addition to fish, poultry and beans, focus on soybean sources like edamame, tempeh and tofu. Soy protein has been shown to help decrease LDL cholesterol levels, too (more on cholesterol later).

Allow substitutions

Allow substitutions

Healthy substitutions in your diet can help you to continue eating many of the foods you love. One of my favorite tips is to cut down on the sugar and butter in a sweet baked item by using fiber-rich applesauce instead. Nonfat yogurt is also delicious in savory dishes in place of the sour cream.

Butter (a saturated fat) can also be replaced with healthier unsaturated fats in the form of olive and canola oil (and switch to oil-based spreads- they’re tasty on toast!)

Don’t ditch fat altogether

ditch fat

Fat is an important part of every diet. Among other things, it helps us to feel full, and helps us to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).

Here’s an easy way to understand the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats:

Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fats like to flow freely, and they are liquid at room temperature.

Replacing unhealthy saturated fats with healthier unsaturated fats can help to lower LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, and raise HDL (or “good” cholesterol), contributing in a big way to heart health.

 Healthy Fats

Instead of topping your salad with cold cuts, try lightly toasted nuts instead- they’re full of healthy fats!

Increase your intake of fiber

Increase your intake of grains

Fiber helps you to feel full, slows digestion, and can help to keep cholesterol levels in check by contributing to decreased LDL levels.

At every meal, fill at least half your plate with healthy vegetables and fruit, and serve high-fiber whole grains instead of other refined and processed options.

Bake, don’t fry

Don’t fry

This can be difficult, especially for those of you who grew up eating fried food.

In order to cut down on your fat intake it’s important to use healthier cooking methods, like baking, roasting, steaming and grilling.

Remove excess fat and skin from meats before you cook them, cook vegetables lightly, and serve them alongside healthy whole grains.

Remember to season your food with healthy herbs and spices, and buy fresh whenever you can- there’s so much more flavor in fresh foods than you’ll find in many frozen options, and you’ll be able to cut out the added salt that’s usually in canned soups, veggies, salad dressings and sauces.

Focus on flavor

Focus on flavor

Heart-healthy food doesn’t have to be bland! Easy healthy meals can be prepared quickly, and they can be flavorful and enjoyable without having to invest a lot of time.”

Cut down on added sodium and fat in your meals by adding a flavor boost to foods the healthy way. Add fresh herbs, tasty spices, citrus zest and juice, garlic and onion.

Herbs and spices

Rather than serving plain grilled chicken with steamed vegetables, take inspiration from international cuisines, and experiment until you find new flavor combinations that you love.

Replace, don’t double up

 don’t double up

When you’re learning to eat healthier, it’s important to replace unhealthy foods that you love with equally craveable options. That is, rather than piling healthier foods like fresh vegetables on top of the fried foods and desserts that you already eat.

Focus on flavorful foods that offer a satisfying crunch (like fresh veggie sticks with homemade hummus), and remember that every time you eat, it’s an opportunity to fortify your health with nutrient-dense options instead of empty calories.

Swap out the sugary sweets

Swap out sweets

I’m personally a big advocate of snacking, and many nutrition experts agree. Eating smaller meals throughout the day helps to keep blood sugar in check, and increases satiety (that feeling of fullness), making it less likely that you will binge on a big meal in the evening.

healthy sugar

Nutrient-packed fruit makes a great replacement for cakes and cookies, and it’s an excellent heart healthy snack that requires little to no preparation.

Decrease salt intake

Decrease salt intake

Most of us consume too much salt, which can lead to high blood pressure and other health issues.

Though you may crave that salt when your tolerance is high, your body will quickly adapt to the flavor of foods seasoned with less salt, if you give it a chance.

Remove the salt shaker from the dinner table, and avoid seasoning your food with salt before you even taste it (a bad habit that so many of us engage in every day!)

Use less salt in your cooking than recipes call for, and avoid processed foods and restaurant meals that are typically high in salt, sugar and fat.

Check with a pro

Check with a pro

As always, be sure to consult with a health care professional before making any major changes to your diet, to find out what’s right for you.

Everyone’s dietary needs are different, based on a variety of factors including age, gender, activity levels, general health, and more.

Consulting with a dietitian or other health care professional can help you to fine tune your diet according to your own personal nutritional needs.

Heart Healthy Foods

Whole grains

Whole grains

Whole grains make up a key part of a heart healthy diet, since they’re rich in the oils and nutrients that have actually been removed from refined grain products like white rice and white bread.

Nutritious Whole Grains

They’re higher in fiber too, meaning they digest more slowly and cause less of a spike in blood sugar.

Remove the highly processed breads, pastas and cakes from your diet, and replace them with whole grains like:

  • Brown rice
  • Whole wheat bread and pasta
  • Wheat berries
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Barley
  • Oats

Oats and barley in particular are high in soluble fiber, which helps to eliminate cholesterol from the body before it can be absorbed into the blood.

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables

Fill your plate with as much as possible, at every meal.

Though fruits and many vegetables do contain a significant amount of natural sugar, they’re also great sources of fiber, not to mention a wealth of essential vitamins and minerals.

To give you a quick primer on the whole fiber thing, there are two different types: soluble and insoluble.

Soluble fiber dissolves in water, forming a gel. Chia seeds are probably the best example of this, since you can see that gelling action firsthand- just combine chia seeds with water and let them soak, and you’ll have a delicious jelly-like substance that makes a great addition to desserts and smoothies!

Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve, but it does bulk up in water. This is why it’s known for aiding digestion, and helping things to move along…

You’ll actually find both types of fiber in many fruits and vegetables, with insoluble fiber often showing up in the peels.

Most fruits and vegetables are also low in calories, so you can eat as much as you want. Just avoid frying them or drowning them in butter or cheese, as this will at least in part cancel out the health benefits that they offer. And remember: fruit is still high in fructose, a natural sugar, so try to eat fruits whole rather than consuming juices to slow down digestion, and focus more on adding less sugary vegetables to your diet.”

Instead, try steaming, grilling or oven roasting fresh vegetables with garlic, olive oil and herbs. Fresh fruit makes a great addition to a Greek yogurt parfait. Oh, and don’t forget the avocado! Though it is “solid” at room temperature, it’s actually a good source of healthy monounsaturated fats, and it adds a delicious, creamy texture to salads, dips and spreads along with plenty of nutrients.

Fruits and vegetables also contain healthy antioxidants that offer various potential health benefits, such as resveratrol (famously found in grapes), which helps to keep blood platelets from forming clots. Anthocyanins are another well-known antioxidant, found in blue, dark red and purple fruits and vegetables like berries and beets. It may help to decrease blood pressure and dilate blood vessels, contributing to heart health. Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant that can also help to dilate blood vessels and decrease LDL.

Low-fat dairy

Low-fat dairy

There’s a big debate out there as to whether it’s actually better to include small quantities of full fat milk products in your diet, or to switch entirely over to low fat milk, yogurt and cheese.

Low-fat dairy

Though full fat dairy does contain significant amounts of saturated fat, if eaten in moderation, dairy of any type contributes healthy vitamins and calcium to your diet.

Dairy products also contain potassium, which can help to lower blood pressure. For heart health, cutting out the unneeded saturated fat is recommended.

Some studies tout the benefits of yogurt in particular, since it contains healthy probiotics (those “active cultures”) that can contribute to a healthy gut, as well as healthy gums.

Though the gut/heart and gut/gums relationships in the body aren’t fully understood at this point (and though it’s clear that everyone’s gut microbiome is different, so a diet of beneficial bacteria personally tailored to an individual may someday be more helpful than the generic offerings available today), it has been shown that yogurt consumption can boost gum and digestive health. We know gum disease can mean heart disease isn’t far off, so increasing your yogurt intake probably won’t hurt.

Unsaturated fat and protein

To help with vitamin absorption and healthy bodily function, look for healthy fats that are found in vegetable sources like nuts and oils.

To ensure that you’re getting healthy amounts of protein in your diet, increase your intake of beans and tofu, and restrict animal-based consumption to lean meats and fish. Ditch the steak that’s marbled with fat and those high-cholesterol shrimp.

lean meats

Though it’s somewhat counterintuitive, “fatty” fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel also make fantastic additions to a heart-healthy diet, since they’re great sources of omega-3s, which can help blood to flow as it should. This can lower the risk of heart arrhythmia and atherosclerosis, an unhealthy buildup of plaque in the arteries that can lead to heart attacks.

If you’re a vegetarian, walnuts and flax seeds can help to boost your omega-3 intake too. I prefer the flax seeds that are already ground, since they’re easier to digest.

Ditch the “candy” drinks

candy drinks

Though most of us know by now that choosing a soda is like drinking a giant cup full of melted lollipops (or worse), few of us have come around to thinking about sweetened fruit juices, sports drinks, coffees and energy drinks the same way.

Candy drinks

The truth is, they’re full of added sugar too!

My advice? Replace them all with water.

Hydration is an important contributor to heart health and good health in general, and upping your intake of H2O is a great way to cut back on excess calories in your diet.

Unsweetened green tea and coffee are also healthy options. Though the caffeine content takes away a little bit from the hydration factor (since caffeine acts as a diuretic), both contain heart-healthy antioxidants. Just avoid negating the potential health benefits by filling these drinks with added sugar and fat from dairy products.

Eat “real” food

Eat real food

This isn’t to say that processed and pre-made foods are actually “fake,” but it can be hard to discern exactly what they’re made from.

Added salt, sugar and fat help to make these products shelf stable for longer, and help to mask off flavors that are associated with long-term preservation and mass production.

Instead, buy fresh whole foods and cook for yourself whenever possible, using simple ingredients.

Tips to Prevent a Heart Attack

1. Eat a healthy diet

Eat a healthy diet

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: eating a healthy diet is probably the number one thing that we can do to improve our heart health, and the health of various other bodily processes and symptoms as well.

The body needs a reliable source of nutrients to do its job, and a healthy diet is the best way to achieve this.

Focus on a varied diet (in order to maximize your ability to get all of the different vitamins and minerals you need) that’s rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, and low in processed foods.

Exercise more

Exercise more

This is often easier said than done, but again, it’s worth it in the long run.

Though many of you out there are already heavily invested in (and even enjoying) a regular exercise regimen, more and more of us are equally invested in sitting on our butts, all day every day.

It’s time to get up and move around, ideally for at least 30 minutes three times per week. Exercising every day is even better.

These needs vary depending on the individual, but a good exercise session should make you sweat. Run around with the kids, work out along with an aerobics DVD, or find a new sport that you enjoy.

Quit smoking

Quit smoking

It kills people. We know this now, and there’s no denying it.

First, it hurts your heart, increases the risk of blood clots, and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, not to mention cancer.

Nobody thinks it looks cool anymore either.

Just get over it.

There are plenty of resources out there that can help, but the first step is simply to stop buying cigarettes and tobacco products. Avoid de-stressing by turning to overeating as a replacement for this super unhealthy vice, and turn to exercising more instead. Forming healthy habits really will help you to curb those cravings.

Having said that, now is probably a great time to cut down on your alcohol intake, too. Your fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty and hopefully ninety-year-old self will thank you!

Go to the doctor

Go to the doctor

Visiting a physician for regular checkups is a great way to focus on health.

Even if you’re feeling well, regular visits to the doctor set a baseline of health, making it easier to detect when a potential problem is cropping up.

Blood work can help to determine if your nutrient intake, blood sugar and cholesterol levels are where they should be, and keeping an eye on your weight doesn’t hurt either.

Now that your game plan’s in place, it’s time to get out there and start eating more heart healthy foods. Healthy cooking and other healthy habits can have such a positive effect on your health—why wait?