Show your heart some love this month with a heart-healthy diet

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UAB experts provide tips on how to maintain a heart-healthy diet. (UAB)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – When it comes to heart health, diet matters. Experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine say wholesome nutrition is a major factor in combating plaque buildup in the arteries that can lead to heart disease. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that a poor diet — among diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use — is one of the most influential lifestyle choices that put people at a higher risk for heart disease. By incorporating heart-healthy foods into one’s diet, individuals can be one step closer to maintaining a healthy heart. 

Fruits and vegetables  

“Having abundant produce in your diet has several benefits for your heart,” said Caroline Cohen, Ph.D., a dietitian in the UAB Department of Family and Community Medicine. “Many fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of potassium, a mineral that plays an important role in blood pressure control. In addition, fruits and vegetables contain dietary fiber to aid in maintaining cholesterol levels in the optimal range.” 

Jody Gilchrist, a nurse practitioner in the UAB Cardiovascular Institute, says eating fresh fruits and vegetables cooked using a low-fat method is great for heart health. 

“Stick to vegetables that have rich color, like spinach, avocados, bell peppers, carrots and zucchini,” Gilchrist said. “Heart-healthy fruit options include strawberries, blueberries and blackberries, which are full of important nutrients that play a central role in heart health.” 

Gilchrist reminds people that it is important to not substitute fresh fruits with 100 percent fruit juice or sweetened dried fruit due to the high amount of sugar in both options. 

The American Heart Association recommends filling at least half of one’s plate with fruits and veggies in order to make it to the recommended 4 ½ cups of each per day. All produce counts, including canned, fresh and frozen varieties, so incorporating these foods into one’s diet is easy. When shopping for canned or frozen produce, it is best to choose the options with the lowest amount of sodium and sugar. 

“We typically prefer frozen produce over canned; but if you are using canned, just be sure to rinse before using,” Gilchrist said. 

Having abundant produce in your diet has several benefits for your heart. (UAB) 

Foods that are high in fiber play a large role in protecting against heart disease, diabetes, diverticulitis, inflammatory bowel syndrome, obesity and colorectal cancer. Fiber maintains gut health, stabilizes blood sugar and helps people stay fuller longer. 

Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that help regulate blood pressure and maintain heart health. 

An easy way to add fiber to one’s diet is to replace refined grains, which have been milled in a way that strips the grain of important nutrients, with whole grains, which contains the entire grain. Choosing whole grain bread instead of white bread and whole wheat pasta instead of egg noodles are examples of simple ways people can incorporate whole grains into their diet. 

These small substitutions add up when it comes to maintaining heart health.  

“The benefits of foods rich in fiber go beyond just heart health,” Gilchrist said. “Foods that are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals can make you feel full longer, lower bad cholesterol, control blood pressure and help you maintain a healthy weight.” 

Healthy sources of protein 

AHA recommends choosing healthy sources of proteins. Healthy proteins can be found in plant sources such as beans, peas, lentils and nuts. They can also be found in fish and seafood such as anchovies, herring, mackerel, black cod, salmon, sardines, bluefin tuna, whitefish, striped bass and cobia. 

Each year, UAB Medicine partners with the American Heart Association to develop a heart-healthy recipe book filled with delicious, simple and affordable meals. Download the 2023 Heart-Healthy Recipe Book at uabmedicine.org/heart

Red meat like beef, pork and lamb typically has more saturated fat than healthy sources of protein and can raise cholesterol levels and increase risk of heart disease. When eating poultry, pork, beef or other meat, choose lean meat, skinless poultry and unprocessed forms. Finally, keep an eye on portion sizes, and ensure portions consist of no more than 3 ounces of cooked meat. 

Read nutrition labels carefully 

“There is no need to avoid all packaged foods; but certain types can contain very high amounts of sodium, which can increase blood pressure in many people and increases the risk for heart disease,” Cohen said. “Frozen meals, canned soups, deli meats, savory snacks and commercially prepared breads are among the top contributors to sodium intake in the United States. Read these labels carefully, and look for brands with less than 20 percent of the Daily Value for sodium per serving.” 

Cook at home 

In addition to choosing heart-healthy ingredients, Gilchrist recommends cooking meals at home to maintain a healthy and balanced diet.    

“When you cook at home, you have more control over which ingredients are included in the dish, and you can adjust these ingredients based on your preferences,” Gilchrist said. “Cooking at home also saves money, and with so many easy recipes available, it saves time too.”    

Olive oil can be a healthy substitute for butter, margarine and other types of fat. Olive oil can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and increase “good” HDL. It can also lower blood pressure and offers anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties known to reduce heart disease. 

Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that help regulate blood pressure and maintain heart health. (UAB) 

“Emphasize dietary fats coming from olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados/avocado oil, and fatty fish to increase monounsaturated and omega-3 fats, both of which can reduce risk of heart disease and decrease inflammation,” Cohen said. “Eat these foods more often than fatty cuts of meat, cheeses, pastries and fried foods, which all contain saturated fat, a type of fat that raises blood levels of unhealthy LDL cholesterol.”  

The Mediterranean-style diet is great for heart health, because it contains low-inflammatory foods. It emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes; includes low-fat or fat-free dairy products, fish, poultry, and non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts; and limits added sugars, sugary beverages, sodium, highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and fatty or processed meats. This diet can play a large role in preventing heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. 

Each year, UAB Medicine partners with the American Heart Association to develop a heart-healthy recipe book filled with delicious, simple and affordable meals made at home. Download the 2023 Heart-Healthy Recipe Book at uabmedicine.org/heart