If you weren’t already aware, February is American Heart Month. This means that people take actions to observe and promote heart health (both emotionally and biologically) throughout the country. While we like to think of our diets as nutritious, we’ll admit that heart health isn’t always the first thing we think of when we plan meals and scan food labels. So, we asked a cardiologist to give us some pointers when it comes to eating for our hearts, as well as for our overall health.
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1. Take it back to the basics.
We know, it’s the oldest piece of advice in the books, but for good reason. When it comes to eating a heart-healthy diet, Satjit Bhusri, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital and assistant professor of Cardiology at the Donald & Barbara Zucker School of Medicine, highly encourages we go back to eating the basics. “We are the same humans. Our biology hasn’t changed, but our choices have. As a result, foods rich in salt, trans-fat, and sugar have surged into our lifestyle,” he says. “This is all because of taste, but taste comes with consequences. Our biology is not made for such high levels of these ingredients and, thus, [our bodies] react with increasing levels of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.”
While we’re all grateful for certain processed foods (pizza, anyone?), it’s no surprise that a large increase in them isn’t doing us, and, thus, our hearts, any favors. Rest assured, you don’t need to switch to a paleo diet overnight. It is, however, beneficial to your heart and health overall to shape your diet around the basics—à la natural, non-processed foods.
2. Look to the Mediterranean diet.
Like the DASH Diet, the Mediterranean diet is touted for its nutritional completeness and heart-healthy basis. In fact, research indicates that the diet is cardioprotective in various ways, including reduced blood pressure, improved vascular function, weight reduction, improved lipid profiles, and reduced oxidative stress. In short, the diet incorporates the healthy basics (plant-based foods, whole grains, legumes)—plus some wine and a bit of olive oil here and there—with other components of traditional cooking styles along the Mediterranean.
“We should eat natural, home-cooked meals with no added butter, salt, and sugar. Lean proteins at night with colorful vegetables” notes Bhusri. “The Mediterranean diet is ideal because it’s the most basic diet. In fact, it’s not a diet, it’s the way our body is supposed to eat. Food is fuel.”
3. Pay attention to fats.
While the Mediterranean Diet encourages the consumption of healthy fats, it’s paramount that those looking out for their hearts pay close attention to the types of fats that they’re eating. To put it simply, you want a good ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids. Foods rich in Omega-3s (like walnuts, spinach, salmon, and olive oil) play a crucial role in reducing inflammation, which may aid in preventing heart disease. On top of that, they keep you full and also promote healthy skin and hair growth (cue praise hands). These are healthy fats you want to include in your daily diet.
On the other hand, Omega-6 fatty acids (found in modern diet mainstays like vegetable oil, dairy, eggs, pastries, and fast food) need to be kept in check. They’re not all bad. In fact, these polyunsaturated fats are often used to help lower one’s risk of heart disease, since they decrease bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase good cholesterol (HDL). The problem lies in our modern diets. When you eat an excessive amount of Omega-6, it can actually increase inflammation and mess with your blood lipids. When it comes to fats, aim for foods with Omega-3 fatty acids and avoid going overboard on those pesky Omega-6s.
4. Avoid added sugars.
When it comes to heart health, most people point fingers at salt. Bhusri makes a point, though, to mention that sugar is what we need to be most mindful of. “Salt is typically known as the silent killer. While this is true, the real killer is sugar. It goes back to basics—we aren’t meant to have added anything to our diets,” he explains. While indulging in something processed or with added sugar is OK in moderation, doing so on a regular basis torments your heart. That’s because eating sugar spikes inflammation, blood lipids, and insulin.
“It’s immediate energy, and if you don’t burn that sugar off it converts to fat as a natural storage process. That fat needs to get stored somewhere—i.e. your heart and brain,” says Bhusri. Don’t consider artificial sweeteners an out here, either. They come with their own domino-effect of bad reactions. Because artificial sweeteners only mimic the taste of sugar and don’t actually deliver it to your bloodstream, the chemicals they contain give you cravings. To add to that, they also encourage bad bacteria in your gut, which leads to more inflammation throughout your body. If a diet that’s beneficial to your heart is your goal, avoid excess sugar as much as possible, starting with the added ones.
5. Reduce your fruit intake—a little.
Sadly, natural sugars have many of the same effects on the body that added ones do. (It’s all sugar, after all.) Because of this, it’s important that those looking out for their heart don’t eat an overabundance of fruits. Doing so puts your body in a constant state of storing that unused sugar as fat, while also throwing your blood lipids and insulin levels through a loop. The same could be said for fruit juices, which basically remove all of the healthy fiber from the fruit and create a concentrated fructose drink. You definitely want to rethink any juicing plans you may have been considering.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t eat fruits! They’re natural and have many clear health benefits. It’s all about being conscious of the amount of sugar and eating the right amount for your body. “Certain fruits are high in sugar. Apples, for example, have a very high glycemic index. Berries, on the other hand, have a low glycemic index and are known to have very strong antioxidant effects. Berries are the way to go,” Bhusri advises.
Interested in more heart-healthy reads? Check out the relationship between alcohol and heart health.