There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to healthy eating for managing our cholesterol and blood pressure. The nutrients we want to reduce include saturated and trans fat, sodium, and refined grains and sugars. The superhero of heart health is fiber and healthy fats! So what are the sources of these nutrients, and how do we make sure to balance them to keep our heart healthy? Read on to find out!
Nutrients of concern:
We’ll break this down simply: saturated fat is shown to increase levels of cholesterol in the blood. Trans fats, which are artificially-made fats, do the same but with a much heavier, and longer-lasting effect.
For quick identification, sources of saturated fat can be boiled down to this: if it is solid at room temperature, it is saturated fat. Examples include butter, the congealed bacon fat leftover in the pan, the marbling fat in a cut of steak, and the fat in dairy products (whole milk, cheeses, yogurt). We want to limit our intake of saturated fats to 20 grams or less per day.
Trans fats are found in more processed snack foods like baked goods made with shortening, old-school margarine, some microwave popcorn, and many fried foods from restaurants. Trans fats increase bad cholesterol levels, while decreasing good cholesterol levels. For this reason, we want to limit it as much as possible.
Sodium is an essential nutrient, but too much can increase blood pressure. Be wary of high-salt foods including frozen meals, snack foods, canned foods (beans, soups, vegetables), sauces (soy, tomato), and generally all restaurant food, no matter how “healthy” the options seem. The restaurants have a product to sell, and most Americans need a hefty amount of salt to be satisfied!
Refined grains and sugars include our white breads (bagels, pizza, pancakes) and sugars (added to soda, desserts, and even foods that don’t taste sweet like tomato sauce). If a grain food (bread, rice) doesn't have any fiber on the label, it’s likely refined and should be replaced with a whole grain option like whole wheat bread or even plain popcorn!
Nutrients to focus on:
Fiber is our best friend! This nutrient has myriad benefits from cancer prevention to digestion support and can really help to scrub out the cholesterol existing in our arteries. Fiber generally comes from plant foods: fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, and whole grains. Extra special sources for heart health include all nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils, plus apples, pears, berries, oranges, sweet potato, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and oatmeal. We recommend eating 25 grams per day for women, and about 35 grams per day for men.
Healthy Fats can also help us because they increase the good cholesterol (HDL) in our blood, which helps to reduce the bad cholesterol (generally: LDL, triglycerides, total cholesterol). This is another shoutout to plant foods: healthy fats come from plant oils (like olive, sunflower, and peanut or sesame), avocados, seeds like chia or flax, and all nuts, especially walnuts. You may have heard that some fish are good sources of healthy fats (specifically omega-3’s) too – and that’s right! Salmon, canned light tuna, pollock, and catfish are good sources lower in mercury. Keep intake of higher-mercury fish a bit lower: these include king mackerel, swordfish, and shark.
So...this is probably a lot to process, but when you break it down, a heart-healthy diet looks like this: eat lots of plants (a rainbow of fruits and vegetables will serve us in so many ways) which may also look like having beans instead of meat one day per week; find leaner protein like freshly-shaved turkey breast for sandwiches (rather than processed baloney, for example), chicken breast, or heart-healthy salmon instead of steak; look for lower-sodium options on packaged foods and in restaurants when possible; and try to reduce intake of white breads and sugars and opt for whole grain and lower-sugar choices when possible (quinoa instead of white rice, fruit cup with whipped cream rather than a jelly donut, corn tortilla over flour). The closer we eat to the earth (which helps to reduce more processed foods), the longer we can keep walking on it!
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– Samantha Marks, RD, LDN