Healthy eating for a happy heart

Many of us think of heart attacks as sudden and inevitable. But heart attacks have gradual beginnings. They can start as a small blockage in an artery, and take months or even years to show symptoms.

A cascade effect of blockage and inflammation can lead to the emergency we think of as a heart attack. Before reaching that point, there are many steps you can take to reduce your risk of heart trouble. Eating healthy is a very important step.

The Mediterranean-style of eating has been proven to have the best chance of reducing the risk of dying from a heart attack. It has fewer meats and carbs, more unprocessed and plant-based foods and more unsaturated (good) fats. A Mediterranean-style diet reduces inflammation in the arteries, decreases your cholesterol level, improves your blood pressure, lowers your risk of heart and stroke, and improves your overall health.

Here’s how to get started on a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet that’s also low in carbs:

  • Replace unhealthy carbs from white bread, pasta and rice, with whole grain bread, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and quinoa.
  • Eat more fish as your protein. Fresh or water-packed, salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and trout are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids which are good for your heart. Foods high in Omega-3, such as flaxseed and fish help reduce inflammation and lower cholesterol. Avoid breaded or fried fish and grill, bake or broil instead. You can also include more vegetable-based protein such as beans and lentils. Organic eggs are also a great source of protein.
  • Let veggies take up the largest portion of your plate. Plant foods are your best allies, especially fresh and whole vegetables. Go for seven servings of vegetables and fruit every day. Green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale have a lot of fiber, antioxidant properties, and natural vitamins. Keep baby carrots, apples and pears on hand for quick, satisfying snacks.
  • Go nuts. Nuts and seeds are good sources of fiber, protein and healthy fats. Keep almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts on hand for a quick snack. Choose natural peanut butter, rather than the kind with hydrogenated fat added. Spread it on whole wheat bread.
  • Eat more chicken and less red meat. Limit red meat to no more than a few times per month. When choosing red meat, make sure it’s lean and keep portions small. Stay away from sausage, bacon and other high-fat, processed meats.
  • Use healthy oils and fats: Use olive oil to cook and in salads, and skip the butter. When cooking, it’s better to steam or bake. (Better yet is to eat raw vegetables.) Broiling, grilling and especially frying are not healthy as they can convert cholesterol and fat into more toxic forms of cholesterol and fat. In addition, grilling and blackening have been shown to release carcinogenic chemicals.
  • Skip the sugar. It’s best to limit your added sugar to 25 to 30 grams a day. One teaspoon equals four grams. Natural sugars, such as fruits and dairy without added sweeteners are okay, but watch the added sugars. For example, a regular serving container of yogurt may have 15 grams of added sugar. Plain yogurt sweetened with honey, maple syrup or stevia extract is a healthier alternative.

The bottom line when it comes to healthy eating is to look at food labels. Oftentimes, sugars and oils are masking under different names. Be aware of what you put in your mouth. The best way to decrease inflammation within your heart is by eating a cleaner, mostly plant-based, unprocessed diet.

Hear Dr. Shah speak about heart health at Girls’ Day Out, August 26, 2017.

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