Eating healthy is sometimes easier said than done.
Sure, foods rich with fat and sugar are obvious no-nos, but often we think we’re eating healthy when in fact we’re eating foods covered in salt and other heart-healthy busters.
Eating a heart-healthy diet is essential in maintaining good health, dietitians say, and by following some easy tips, is entirely possible.
Love your fruits and veggies
So you can’t go wrong with fruits and vegetables, right? Yes – and no.
Carol Bliznik, a registered dietitian at Franciscan St. Anthony Health-Crown Point, says the deeper color, the better.
“Think of a rainbow and choose those with the deepest colors for the most nutritional value, such as raspberries, blueberries, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, pumpkin and multi-colored peppers,” she said.
Eat fruit in its purest form, as well. In other words, skip adding sugar or using it as a topping on something full of saturated fats like ice cream.
Not all grains are equal
Choose whole grain, high-fiber breads, cereals, pasta and rice more often than products made of white flour. Your heart will thank you, says Jerry Sabo, a clinical dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab unit at The Methodist Hospitals.
Whole grains tend to have more fiber, which is linked to lower heart disease. Sabo recommends eating 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day.
Watch the salt
One of heart disease’s biggest allies is salt. Patients with heart disease often are told by their doctors to limit the amount of salt they take in in their diets. Anyone who has ever looked at a nutritional label, however, knows that isn’t easy.
Canned, pickled and smoked foods all are high in sodium, as are seasonings, soups and even breads.
“Even in pasta sauce you buy at the store there’s sugar and salt,” Sabo said. “If you’re not a scratch chef, that’s a problem.”
Without monitoring products’ labels, it’s impossible to know how much salt is in a product, he said.
“Watch how you’re flavoring and cooking your food,” he said. “You can use wine and vinegars when cooking, but if you use them, avoid seasoned wine and vinegars. That means they have high fructose corn syrup and salt in them.”
Next time you go to pick up the salt shaker, consider other sources of flavoring such as Tabasco sauce, Cayenne pepper or fresh and dry peppers.
The American Heart Association says if Americans cut their average sodium intake by more than half – to an average of 1,500 milligrams a day – there would be a nearly 26-percent decrease in high blood pressure.
Be picky about your meat and eggs
If financially able to, invest in purchasing grass-fed animal products, Sabo said.
They tend to be rich in fats that are health-enhancing, but low in fats that have been linked to diseases, he said.
“Still, you really don’t need more than six to eight ounces of meat a day,” he said. “If you eat eggs, I don’t recommend more than one a day.”
Eat healthy snacks
Eating a snack can be a tempting time of the day to indulge, but Bliznik says it’s the perfect time to consume heart-healthy foods.
“Unsalted nuts such as almonds, walnuts and pistachios are nutritious and delicious, but moderation is important to avoid excessive calories from these foods, even though they contain heart healthy fats,” she said.
Popcorn is an excellent treat, but leave off the butter high in saturated fats, Sabo said.
Enjoy eating out
Eating out can be a nightmare for someone who wants to eat heart healthy.
Restaurants often load their food with fats, sodium and sugar to appease the taste buds of customers.
“When preparing to dine out, visit the website to help identify the healthiest choices,” Bliznik said. “Select foods that are steamed in their own juice, broiled baked, roasted, poached or lightly sauteed, rather than breaded or fried.”
Trim visible fat from meat and poultry, and leave off butter, gravy and cream sauces.
Sabo says to leave condiments at the end of the table. They are often high in sugar and salt, he says. Even some vegetarian dishes can be high in sodium, including hummus.
“If you’re ordering pizza, get one without tons of meat, and add vegetables,” he said. “If you get soup, make sure it’s just one cup of soup, and always be careful of drinks. Even some alcoholic drinks are very high in sodium.”
Raw salads and grilled chicken breasts are often the safest way to go, he said.
Bliznik suggests if you order a salad, to ask for the dressing on the side and use only a small amount for flavor.
“If you ask for the high fat ingredients on the side, you can control the amount you choose to consume or avoid the temptation, and eliminate those items from your order,” she said.
One of the worst things you can do is supersize your order.
“This can increase the amount of fat, sodium, sugars and calories you consume,” Bliznik said.
Develop a habit
“The best way to limit non-heart healthy foods is to first develop a heart healthy habit,” Sabo said.
That includes eating lower fat/cholesterol and low-sodium foods, and eating high fiber, he said.
“It takes about eight to 12 weeks from research to be able to initiate a lower sodium habit,” he said. “So don’t expect overnight results with flavor, unless food is adjusted with flavor enhancing techniques.”
To help get you over that hump of resisting the taste of salt in foods, try using fresh citrus, such as lemon, lime and freshly squeezed orange juice.
Flavor foods with liquid smoke, which is sold in most large grocery chain stores and typically has lower sodium, and use fresh herbs or spices. Even commercially-prepared sodium-free items like Mrs. Dash are OK to use, Sabo said.
“Use chicken, beef and fish stock flavoring like the Minor’s brand, and no added-sodium packets like Herb Ox,” he said.
Watch hydrogenated fats as well, such as stick margarines, butter, lard and shortening, and trans fats that contribute to heart disease, Bliznik said.
One of the most important habits to develop is recognizing portion size, Sabo says.
As someone who works with heart patients, he often sees patients boast that they eat low-sodium foods. But when questioned further, Sabo discovers they ate multiple servings – essentially eliminating the benefit of the food being low in sodium.
But don’t always resist temptation
When you think of certain foods as “off limits,” you may feel like a failure if you start craving them and give in to temptation, Bliznik said.
“Maybe try only one of those ‘faves,’ watch portion size and limit it to a special occasional treat,” she said.
Dark chocolate – when eaten in moderation – can provide antioxidants that are good for the body, and even some salts are better than others.
Commercially-prepared salts are stripped of their minerals, but pure salts such as Himalayan Crystal Salt is free of toxins and is lower in sodium.