It’s easy to indulge yourself and go off a heart-healthy diet, whether it’s triggered by stress eating or more time near a refrigerator due to pandemic isolation. But it doesn’t take much to get your diet back on track. “Little changes have a cumulative effect,” says Gabrielle Gambino, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Weill Cornell Medicine. Here are six key diet tweaks that will help improve heart health.
1. Reduce your sodium intake. “Sodium helps regulate blood pressure and the body’s fluid levels. But regularly eating too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and fluid retention, forcing your heart to work harder. Limit salt to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day (1 teaspoon) or, ideally, 1,500 mg (2/3 teaspoon) if you are at risk for or have hypertension (high blood pressure).
“Avoid processed deli meats and cured meats, frozen foods, and shelf-stable foods. Salt is a main ingredient that keeps them fresh and improves flavor,” Gambino says.“Red flags on food labels include disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, fleur de sel, Himalayan pink salt, Kosher salt, monosodium glutamate, and trisodium phosphate,” Gambino says.
2. Reduce red and processed meat. Red meats (including pork) are rich in protein, iron, and vitamin B12, but they’re also bursting with saturated fat that can increase cholesterol, clog arteries, and increase inflammation. “Eat it sparingly, go for leaner cuts such as bottom round, chuck shoulder, flank steak, filet mignon, loin pork chops, or bone-in rib pork chops, and choose lower-fat ‘select’ grades, not ‘prime.’ Ground beef should be 95% lean.”
3. Increase dark, leafy greens. “Greens like broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts contain a number of heart-healthy nutrients, such as calcium, iron, folate, fiber, and antioxidants. “Fiber keeps us from absorbing too much cholesterol by trapping it and moving it through the body for elimination. Folate helps control levels of homocysteine, which increases the risk for heart disease,” Gambino says. “Opt for dark, leafy greens as often as possible—as a side dish or in smoothies, salads, soups, or stews.”
4. Eat more nuts. Nuts have lots of fiber and healthy unsaturated fat that lowers cholesterol, supports the blood vessel lining, and maintains heart function. “Enjoy a handful of nuts as a snack or sneak nuts into oatmeal, smoothies, stews, cooked whole grains, or salads. All natural, low-sodium nut butters are also good choices. But avoid salted nuts,” Gambino suggests.
5. Swap out condiments. Replace add-ons high in saturated fats (such as butter, mayonnaise, and creamy dressings) with unsaturated fats (such as olive oil). “Some products contain plant stanols or sterols, which are linked to improved cholesterol levels. Sprayable butter alternatives work for topping food items, reducing the amount you need. Salad dressings with oil bases include a heart-healthy mix of good fat, which is why these are preferred over creamy dressings such as ranch or bleu cheese,” Gambino says.
6. Limit added sugar. Eating too much added sugar leads to high amounts of inflammation in the body and extra fat storage, increasing the risk for heart disease and diabetes. “These conditions tend to go handin- hand,” Gambino warns. Women should limit added sugars to no more than 36 grams per day.
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