Simple food substitutions for a healthy heart.
Old habits die hard. It’s not easy changing the eating habits you’ve lived with for years. But when your doctor tells you your heart and possibly your life is in danger if you don’t make changes, it’s a sure wake-up call. Along with exercise, your diet plays a large role in the health of your heart, either working to protect it or hurt it.
Improving the health of your heart through dietary changes comes down to three main rules: eat more fiber, eat less saturated and trans fats, and limit sodium. Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world. You may have to say goodbye to pizza, steak, and donuts, but there are plenty of alternatives to choose from that’ll keep your mouth watering for years to come.
With a few simple food substitutions, you can make a big difference in your heart health.
Eat More Fiber
What’s the big deal about fiber? When you eat fiber, it binds to cholesterol in your digestive tract and removes it from the body before it can be absorbed into the blood. This means a fiber-rich diet actively works to lower your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and risk of stroke and diabetes. A diet high in fiber is also helpful in weight loss (also good for your heart) because fiber fills you up and curbs your appetite.
Increase the fiber in your diet by swapping foods such as white rice, pasta, bread, snacks, and cereal for whole-grain varieties. Snack on fruits and vegetables rather than cookies, crackers, and chips, and eat whole fruit rather than drinking its juice alternative.
Avoid Saturated and Trans Fats
Strange as it sounds, there is such a thing as heart-healthy fats. Your heart needs certain kinds of fat (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) to function, but unhealthy fats like saturated and trans fats increase blood cholesterol. This leads to a buildup of plaque in your arteries and puts you at risk for stroke and heart attack.
Many foods that come from animal sources (certain meats and whole-fat dairy products like cheese and butter) and fats that are solid at room temperature are high in saturated fats while processed foods are often high in trans fats. Here are a few ways to cut them out of your diet.
- Swap whole-fat dairy products like cheese, milk, yogurt, and sour cream for skim or reduced-fat varieties.
- Rather than steak, pork sausage, or ribs for dinner, how about fish, chicken, or turkey sausage? Red meat and fatty cuts of meat should be avoided, but fish such as salmon, herring, and mackerel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and are especially good for your heart.
- Bake, grill, or broil your fish or poultry instead of frying and you’ll cut out at least half the saturated fats from your meal.
- Instead of fattening creamy salad dressings, mix up your own with olive oil, vinegar, spices, and herbs.
- Plan to eat a few meatless dinners each week. Use legumes (beans, lentils, and peas) as your protein source. Lower in fat and cholesterol, legumes are a great substitution for animal protein.
- Swap out full-fat mayonnaise on your sandwich or in your salad with low-fat Greek yogurt or mashed avocado.
- When you’re craving bacon, try lean turkey bacon rather than full-fat pork bacon.
- Instead of snacking on processed foods high in trans fat, choose a handful of nuts, popcorn, or dried fruit.
Limit Salt Intake
Sodium is essential for health, but too much can be bad for your heart. Sodium makes your body retain fluid, which increases blood pressure and makes your heart work overtime. A diet high in sodium is associated with stroke, heart attack, and heart disease.
Most people consume double the recommended daily amount of sodium. A heart-healthy diet, however, should limit sodium to no more than 1,500 milligrams a day. Just one-fourth of a teaspoon of salt contains 575 mg sodium. While you may not sprinkle much salt on your food, if your food is pre-packaged or from a restaurant, it’s likely loaded with sodium.
Limit the amount of salt in your diet by choosing foods labeled as low-sodium or “no salt added.” For flavor, add a sprinkle of lemon juice to your food or any variety of spices.