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  • Susie Csorsz Brown

<3 (heart) your heart

A heart healthy diet does not mean weight loss plan. Not always.

I’m not going to tell you to go on a diet. Promise. The word 'diet' here refers to your regular intake of food, and NOT/NOT a plan to lose weight. Perhaps your regular eating plan should be a plan to lose weight; perhaps your regular eating plan is an every-day way of eating. You know best what category you fall into. Your diet should include all food groups; there are no 'bad' foods, there are only inappropriate amounts. For some, the inappropriate amount might be anything more than a spoonful; for another, it might be more than a slice. You should be aware of what are the foods that you should be consuming more of, and the foods you should have in degrees of moderation. As with all things, moderation is key, and over-indulging in anything can lead to extra weight on your frame. The role of diet is crucial in the development and prevention of cardiovascular disease. Diet is one of the key things you can change that will impact all other cardiovascular risk factors. In fact, comparisons between a diet low in saturated fats, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the typical diet of someone living in the developed world show that in the former there is a 73% reduction in the risk of new major cardiac events. So, take away message: the more ‘developed’ your diet is, to include manufactured or man-made foods vice those Ma Nature is producing, the worse off your cardiovascular health is likely to be. Rather than ‘eat your heart out’, how about we think about what it is we can do for our hearts that will keep them ticking and strong as long as possible. As it is American Heart month, here are a few suggestions out to help us eat a heart-healthy diet.

Foods you should be eating more of include:

-Veggies (especially) and fruits, especially those that are minimally processed. Fruit and vegetables contain components that protect against heart disease and stroke. The closer they resemble the way they are grown in nature, the better they are for you. As with all foods, the less added sugar and salt, the better. If you can pronounce it, it’s a good thing. Fruits and veggies are excellent sources of fiber (both soluble and insoluble), phyto-nutrients, and help keep you feeling full. It’s best if you enjoy a wide variety of fruits and veggies of all different types, but you know what? If you love only carrots and tomatoes, that’s better than nothing? Keep introducing new fruits and veggies and I promise, eventually you will find more that you love. Remember this: Color, color, color. Every color of food (naturally occurring) offers different nutrients (phtyo-nutrients mentioned above) that occur naturally in foods. The more colorful your diet, the better.

-Whole grains and other fiber-rich foods - Grains consumed should be ‘whole-grain’, meaning the nutrient- and fiber-rich parts are still in there (typically, this should be indicated on the nutritional label or have a stamp on the front). Whole-wheat pastas, brown rice and new fun (old) grains like farro, kasha, barley and quinoa are great to try. Beans are an amazing addition to a diet because they are fiber-rich, keep you full, and easy on the pocketbook. The key to grains and beans, though, is WHOLE grain; again, the less processed (read: the less 'minute' or 'quick-cook'), the better because it's the whole grain parts that offer heart-health benefits, that contain the vitamins and minerals that are so good for you, and that help with blood pressure regulation. Whole grains don’t have to be wheat-based, which is especially important to note for those who are trying to avoid gluten. There are many options that are good for you, full of nutrients, AND wheat- (or gluten-) free.

-Lean meats like chicken and fish contribute the necessary protein your body needs for every day movements, growth and function without the extra calories, saturated fats or cholesterol other options might contribute. Again, there are no bad foods, but regularly eating lean protein options and choosing low- or no-fat dairy products will help keep your heart healthier. Adequate intake of protein is important as protein is one of the building blocks of your own tissues (especially muscle); lean sources tend to offer these benefits without the added fat and calorie load of fattier options.

-Good for you fats like mono-unsaturated (olive or canola oils) or poly-unsaturated fats (like fish, nuts, seeds and avocados). This doesn't mean you should use these types of fats with abandon, but healthy fats are an essential part of your heart-healthy diet, and can contribute to better blood cholesterol levels. Good-for-you fats are also a good thing to include in a heart-healthy diet as they help keep you feeling full longer, and give your body the necessary fatty acids it needs to function properly. Remember, though, it's a vicious cycle: all fats have higher calories, and extra calories equals extra pounds which can in turn contribute to heart disease.

Food you should be eating less of:

First of all, yes, you can have dessert. Yes, you can have sweets. Your diet should include the foods you love. But remember that your portion sizes are important. Moderation is key to living healthfully. Anything to excess – even broccoli – is not a good thing. Why? Because if you omit food groups from your diet, then you are omitting the nutrients those foods provide to your body from your diet.

-Bad-for-you fats which include saturated fats and trans-fats. Not only does limiting these types of fats help lower your blood cholesterol levels but because they also contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease, the less of them you have in your diet, the better. How do you know what to avoid? Rule of thumb is: avoid fats that are solid at room temperature OR man-made. Trans-fatty acids do not occur in nature; these are man-made only, and especially high in more-processed foods. Fats that are solid at room temperature like lard and shortening are full of saturated and trans-fats. A diet high in saturated fats (e.g. cheese) and trans-fats (often used in cakes, cookies and fast food) leads to high levels of cholesterol.

-Fattier protein options such as marbled meats like certain cuts of beef or steak, processed meats (e.g. hot dogs, bacon, sausage or ham), or spare ribs. And typically, crunchy or breaded meats are not a good option, either, as the breading is often fried, heavy and/or grease laden. Most experts agree that saturated and trans fats raise cholesterol levels in the blood, which in turn can lead to atherosclerosis, and fact is: fattier protein options contribute to your calorie intake (promoting weight gain) and extra weight is a factor for heart health.

- sodium contributes to high blood pressure. If you are trying to follow a heart-healthy diet, it is a good idea to reduce sodium - not just the salt you put on or in your foods but also sodium-laden foods (usually processed or canned foods). You've probably noticed a pattern here: the more processed a food and the more 'handled', the less good-for-you nutrients remain in it, and the more bad-for-you chemical and ingredients it will likely contain. Eating foods that are closer to the state that Ma Nature created is generally a good rule of thumb.

-'Diet' foods – You may think you are doing yourself a favor, opting for the ‘diet’ version of a food, but oftentimes, the substitutions manufacturers make to create a ‘diet’ version of a food can actually make the food as unhealthy as the regular version. Foods that are created to 'trick' you (e.g. 'diet' cookies or soda) are often higher in sugar or sodium to make up for the lack of fat, and have barely any difference in caloric intake.

The bottom line: Eating a heart-healthy diet is not hard, expensive or complicated. There are no bad foods; the key is to eat a variety of foods – the less processed, the better – and not too much of them. Eat enough to maintain your energy, and keep active. Eat mostly plants, if possible, but include protein, especially lean sources. Choose good-for-you fats as they not only keep you feeling full, but also provide nutrients that your body needs. Man-made foods might be fun and tasty, but they also have a negative impact on your heart health. Choose your foods wisely, and your heart will thank you for it.

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