A “Heart-to-Heart” on What’s Heart Healthy

- February 5, 2019

February is American Heart Month—a month to raise awareness of how to reduce risk of heart disease—and it remains as relevant as ever. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, with 1 in 4 deaths attributed to it.1 However, there is hope for every heart out there—a heart-healthy diet can reduce your risk of developing heart disease.

A heart-healthy diet is one that reduces known risk factors of heart disease, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), high blood triglycerides, high blood cholesterol, and being overweight or obese.2 But while the risk factors may be known, everyone—from your friends, your family, to Google—seems to have different answers regarding what you should and should not eat to protect your heart. Is all fat bad? What about cholesterol in the food we eat? Is sugar harmless to your heart? And is sodium only found in the salt shaker? Here’s a little “heart-to-heart” on what you should do to protect your heart through February and all year round.

Myth: All fat is bad!

For decades, fat was seen as the enemy of the heart and was avoided at all costs. What we now know is the type of fat matters. Eating too much saturated fat, or fat that’s solid at room temperature like butter and coconut oil, raises LDL cholesterol (AKA “bad” cholesterol) and your risk of heart disease along with it.3 Trans fats, or hydrogenated oils that are also solid at room temperature, do double damage—raising LDL cholesterol and lowering heart-protective HDL cholesterol (AKA “good” cholesterol). While everyone should strive to limit their intake of saturated fats and avoid trans fats, eating polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), fats that tend to be liquid at room temperature, may be heart-protective. Replacing saturated and trans fats with moderate amounts of PUFAs reduces LDL cholesterol levels and may reduce risk of heart disease and stroke.4 Additionally, essential PUFAs known as omega-3’s have been shown to lower levels of triglycerides and may lower blood pressure. Our body can’t make these important compounds, which means we must get them in the diet. So, instead of cutting out all fat, try swapping some of the sources of saturated and trans fats with sources of PUFAs, listed below!

Trans Fats Saturated Fats Try these -> PUFAs
Margarine Coconut Oil and Butter Olive or Canola Oil
Store-Bought Baked Goods Beef and Pork Salmon and tuna
Microwave Popcorn Whole Milk Dairy Walnuts and Almonds

 

Myth: Dietary cholesterol is bad for your heart, so you should avoid eggs!

It’s well-established that increased blood cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease. For decades, it was thought dietary cholesterol increased blood cholesterol, and people were told to avoid food sources of cholesterol like egg yolks, shrimp, and shellfish. However, recent research has shown dietary cholesterol has little (if any effect) on blood cholesterol and may not need to be so restricted.5 But remain mindful of saturated fat, as foods high in cholesterol tend to be higher in saturated fat. So, enjoy your egg yolks in moderation!

Myth: Sugar won’t hurt your heart!

This myth often goes hand-in-hand with avoiding all fat. Instead of choosing a treat high in fat, some people will choose a fat-free candy or dessert that’s high in sugar because they think that’s more heart-healthy. In actuality, eating too much sugar is one of the most harmful things you can do to your heart. Eating too much sugar raises blood triglycerides, raises blood pressure, and can lead to excessive weight gain—each of which is a heart disease risk factor in and of itself—and the risk of heart disease rises in tandem with the amount of sugar consumed.6 Additionally, eating too much sugar can increase your risk of developing diabetes, which is linked with increased heart disease.7 So what can a sweet tooth do take care of their heart? One way is to limit eating concentrated sources of added sugars, such as sodas, juices, candy, baked desserts, and sweeter condiments like ketchup, and instead eating more sources of naturally-occurring sugars, like those in fruit. Fruits are also an excellent source of fiber, a compound our body can’t digest, but which may reduce risk of heart disease if eaten in large amounts.8

Myth: Sodium is only found in the saltshaker!

Eating too much salt, AKA sodium, is linked with heart disease. Excessive sodium intake can increase blood pressure, one of the major risk factors of heart disease. As 90% of Americans will develop high blood pressure in their lifetimes, one way to reduce the risk is to reduce sodium intake.9 Yet, most of the sodium Americans eat isn’t added with the saltshaker—it’s been added to packaged foods before it even reaches the table. In fact, 70% of the average American’s daily sodium intake is from packaged or processed foods.9 The goal is to eat no more than 2300 milligrams of sodium a day to maximize heart health, but most Americans exceed this limit because we may not be counting the sodium in packaged foods.9 How can you reduce your intake of this sneaky salt? Always check the Nutrition Facts label of packaged foods for total sodium, and try to only choose foods with no more than 200 milligrams of sodium per serving. Limit intake of high sodium processed foods, such as canned soups, chips, and deli meats, and choose naturally low sodium whole foods, like fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables instead. When you do add salt, keep it to a sprinkle.

Now that we’ve busted these myths, what’s the TRUTH when it comes to a heart-healthy diet? Moving towards a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, moderate amounts of healthy fats, and low in sodium is the key to best heart health. To get you started on a month of happy hearts, here’s a suggested heart-healthy shopping list. And remember—every month is “Heart Month” if you make eating heart-healthy foods a daily practice.

 

References

  1. cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm
  2. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/hearttruth/lower-risk/risk-factors.htm
  3. http://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats
  4. http://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/polyunsaturated-fats
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16596800
  6. https://www.goredforwomen.org/live-healthy/first-steps-to-prevent-heart-disease-and-be-heart-healthy/sugar-heart-disease/
  7. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/diabetic-heart-disease
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16407729
  9. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/sodium-and-salt
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