Eating with your heart in mind: simple steps to a heart-healthy diet.

February 16, 2011

A couple looking for healthy recipes online

You may already know that certain foods are not healthy, but changing your eating habits can be a tough job. Knowing which foods to eat more of, and which foods to avoid, can help you get a jump-start on your way to a heart-healthy diet.

Good fats, bad fats, and cholesterol

While all fats are high in calories, it is important to understand the difference between "good" fats and "bad" ones. The Mayo Clinic says the most important step you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease is to keep your cholesterol level low. Do that by limiting the amount of saturated fats and trans fats you eat.

Cholesterol is a waxy material found in the fats in your blood. Your body needs some cholesterol to build healthy cells. If you have too much, though, especially of the bad kind of cholesterol, or LDL, it can raise your risk of heart disease.

Butter is a saturated fat. Although it's a natural product, it can increase your cholesterol. Even worse are trans fats, which are made with chemicals. Some margarine and shortening contain trans fats, as do some baked products. Both saturated fats and trans fats can build up in your blood stream, causing unhealthy amounts of cholesterol.

Good fats are those such as olive oil or canola oil. Nuts and seeds also contain good fats. In fact, they can actually help lower your cholesterol level.

Trimming the fat off your meat, choosing lean meats with less than 10 percent fat, and making simple changes like using low-fat yogurt or salsa instead of butter on your potato are easy ways to reduce the amount of bad fats in your diet.

Eat more chicken, fish, and beans and less red meat

In general, red meats such as beef, pork, and lamb have more cholesterol and bad fat than chicken, fish, and beans. The good fats in cold water fish such as salmon, trout, and herring actually have health benefits that may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Beans don't contain cholesterol unless they are cooked with meat or solid fats. There are many types of beans - pinto, kidney, garbanzo, and soybeans – that are all good for you. Eating a soy burger instead of a hamburger will reduce fat and cholesterol.

Tips for People Who Like Meat

It's okay to eat red meat as long as you limit the amount. The American Heart Association says that people should limit lean meat, skinless chicken, and fish to less than six ounces per day, total. Fish should be eaten at least twice per week, preferably those with healthy fats.

Use the tips below to lower the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you get when you eat meat.

  • One portion of meat is about the size of a deck of cards or three ounces
  • Choose lean cuts of meat. Lean cuts usually contain the words "round,""loin," or "sirloin" on the package
  • Trim off as much fat as you can before cooking and pour off the melted fat after cooking
  • Use healthier cooking methods: bake, broil, stew, or grill

Add fruits and vegetables to your diet

The Harvard School of Public Health says that most people should have at least nine servings, or about four-and-a-half cups, of vegetables and fruits a day. Potatoes don't count! Choose from all kinds and colors of produce, to give your body the mix of vitamins it needs. Best bets? Dark leafy greens, cooked tomatoes, and anything that's a rich yellow, orange, or red color.

Keep vegetables washed and cut in your refrigerator for quick snacks. Fruit in a bowl on the counter is a good idea also. You can find many recipes that use vegetables or fruit, such as vegetable stir-fry or fresh fruit mixed into salads.

Choose whole grains

Whole grains play an important role in heart health. Here are some ways to add whole grains to your diet:

  • Switching from white bread to 100% whole wheat bread
  • Choosing whole grain rice over white rice
  • Eat whole-wheat pasta and oatmeal
  • Stay away from muffins, cornbread, doughnuts, frozen waffles, and snack crackers – unless they are low fat and high fiber – 2 grams or more

Limit the amount of salt in your food

Cutting back on your salt use is important to a healthy heart. The American Heart Association suggests that you choose and prepare foods with little or no salt, which is the same as sodium, to reduce the risk of heart disease. The goal is to eat less than a teaspoon per day.

While cutting back on the salt at the table is a good idea, much of the salt you eat comes from canned or processed foods, says the Mayo Clinic. Eating fresh foods and cooking your own soups and stews are great ways to cut back on the amount of salt you eat. You can also look for "reduced sodium" on the labels of prepared foods at the grocery store.

Watch your portion size

When you are trying to follow an eating plan that's heart healthy, the Cleveland Clinic suggests that you know how much of a certain kind of food is considered a "serving." For example, one serving of pasta is about a half-cup, or the size of a hockey puck. A serving of meat is two to three ounces, about the size of a deck of cards. You may want to try using measuring spoons or cups to help you make good choices.

Plan ahead for success

Now that you know which foods to include in your daily diet, start planning ahead.

Planning daily menus and sticking to a heart-healthy grocery list is a great way to start. Watch your portion sizes and be sure to include many kinds of foods in your weekly menu plan. Use the tips you find here to help you create delicious, healthy meals that the whole family will enjoy.

Give yourself a break!

Allowing yourself a treat now and then isn't a bad thing. Just don't use it as an excuse to get off track. If you keep treats as an exception, and not a rule, things will balance out over the long run.

Creating a heart-healthy lifestyle is just a matter of knowing the facts and making smart choices. Once you get started, you'll feel better. Your heart will thank you for it!

Heart-Healthy Recipe

Baked chicken and wild rice with onion and tarragon

This chicken dish is moist and full of flavor thanks to slow cooking in a covered dish. The sage and licorice flavor of the tarragon works perfectly with the chicken.

By Mayo Clinic staff

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 6 chicken breast halves
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped celery
  • 1 1/2 cups whole pearl onions
  • 1 teaspoon fresh tarragon
  • 2 cups unsalted chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 package long grain and wild rice mix and seasoning packet

Directions

Preheat the oven to 300° F.

Remove skin and bones from the chicken breasts and cut into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces. Combine the chicken, celery, pearl onions and tarragon plus 1 cup of the unsalted chicken broth in a nonstick frying pan. Cook on medium heat until the chicken and vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a baking dish, combine the wine, remaining 1 cup chicken broth, rice and seasoning packet. Let soak for 30 minutes.

Add the cooked chicken and vegetables to the baking dish. Cover and bake for 60 minutes. Check to see if you need to add more broth if the rice is too dry. Serve hot.

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