Heart-healthy meals start with heart-healthy ingredients. Here are some tips for selecting and preparing foods that support heart health.
To me, calling a diet “heart-healthy” can be a bit misleading. It seems to suggest that a heart-healthy diet is somehow different from a more general “healthy diet,” but they’re really one and the same. A heart-healthy diet is one that calls for a variety of good-for-you foods––including lean proteins, plenty of fruits and vegetables, adequate amounts of fiber and modest amounts of sugar, salt and saturated fat. Sounds like a healthy diet to me.
A heart-healthy diet not only supports the health of your heart, it also supports your overall health in a number of ways. Low fat protein foods keep you full and give your body what it needs to build and repair important body proteins, all while keeping your total fat and saturated fat in check. The right carbohydrates give your body the fuel it needs, along with generous doses of vitamins, minerals and fiber. And small amounts of the right fats contribute essential fatty acids and flavor. When taken all together, these foods make up a well-balanced diet that’s filling and flavorful.
The protein that you eat every day provides the basic building blocks that your body needs to perform literally hundreds of functions. Protein is found in a variety of plant and animal foods, but saturated fats often tag along—especially in the case of animal proteins. So, you’ll want to select from a variety of plant proteins and lean/low fat animal sources. Fish is generally a good choice, since it contributes heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Look for plant proteins like lentils and beans, and particularly the complete protein of soy and soy products. Also include eggs, fish and seafood, poultry (especially white meat), nonfat and low fat dairy products and lean cuts of meat.
Aim for several vegetarian meals per week that rely on beans, lentils and soy-based foods like tempeh and tofu to provide protein. In recipes that call for meat or poultry, experiment with using tofu or seafood instead. Replace high-fat meats with lower fat choices (ground poultry breast can replace ground beef, for example).
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for your body’s engine. Their fiber content can also help fill you up, which can help you control your weight. Many fruits and vegetables are rich sources of potassium, which supports healthy blood pressure. And some are also good sources of nitrate, a compound used by the body to make nitric oxide which supports the health of your blood vessels. Avoid carbohydrates from sugars and highly refined grains, which offer up much less nutrition and more calories per bite.
Keep your focus on vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains and whole grain products to provide the carbs your body needs. Try to reduce your intake of sweets, juices, sugary drinks and refined grain products like white rice, and “white” flour products like regular pasta, white bread, cereals and crackers.
Aim for a fruit or vegetable at every meal and snack. Add fruits and vegetables to your protein shakes and use them for snacks, and add veggies to soups, stews, casseroles and mixed dishes. Frozen fruits and vegetables are fine—they’re convenient and their nutrient content is preserved. Choose whole grains––such as brown rice, barley, quinoa, wild rice and oats––over refined grains. To retain nutrients in vegetables, cook by steaming, microwaving or stir-frying.
Your body needs small amounts of fat in order to function properly. What’s important is choosing
the right fats and keeping your overall fat intake moderate. In general, fats that are derived from plant sources are considered to be more heart-healthy than animal fats. Animal fats contain more saturated fats, which tend to raise blood cholesterol levels.
Nuts, seeds, avocados and olives are some of the best sources of healthy fats, as are the oils that are derived from these foods. Olive oil and canola oil are good sources of monounsaturated fatty acids and are great for cooking. Small amounts of nuts and seeds can add a lot of flavor to dishes. Limit your intake of sources of saturated fats like butter and shortening, as well as foods that contain a lot of animal fat such as cheese, fatty meats and ice cream.
Use olive and canola oil for cooking. Use mashed avocado to replace foods like mayonnaise, sour cream or butter in cooking and at the table. Use moderate amounts of nuts for snacks (heart-healthy, but the calories can add up).