Make Smart Food Choices For Vascular And Heart Health

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What you eat plays a key role in your heart and vascular health. Foods rich in minerals, protein, whole grains, and other nutrients, but low in calories, will contribute to a healthy heart and arteries, plus help control your weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure.

“Heart disease is something that develops over time,” says family nurse practitioner Trisha Strayer, FNP. “Much of it is diet-related, so it’s important to know what foods you should avoid, and what foods you should add to your diet.” 

Follow these guidelines in choosing foods that are good for your arteries and your heart:

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, whether fresh, frozen, or canned. They are packed with vitamins and nutrients to keep you energized. Buy frozen or canned varieties without added sugar or salt.
  • Select whole grains, which are much richer in B-vitamins, iron, and dietary fiber than refined grains. Whole grains include whole wheat, oats/oatmeal, rye, barley, corn, popcorn, brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, triticale (hybrid of wheat and rye), bulgur (cracked wheat), millet, quinoa, and sorghum.
  • Choose fish, shellfish, poultry without skin, and trimmed lean meats for a good source of protein. Prepare at least two servings of baked or grilled fish weekly. Fish with omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon, trout, and herring) are especially beneficial to the heart and arteries. Use savory herbs and spices when preparing these foods rather than cooking with salt, saturated fat and trans fat.
  • Eat legumes, such as beans, peanuts, peas, and lentils. These are high in proteins, minerals and fiber, without the fats found in meats. Add them to entrees, salads, or soup.
  • Select fat-free (skim) and low-fat (1%) dairy products for a low-fat source of calcium and vitamin D.

Foods To Limit Or Avoid

Carefully read Nutrition Facts labels to help you stay away from foods that contribute to artery and heart problems. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you limit or avoid:

  • Foods high in saturated fat or trans fat, including those made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Whenever possible, replace these with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. For example, use cooking oils (in moderation) such as canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, and vegetable oil.

    “Saturated fats are firm at room temperature, like a stick of butter,” says Strayer. “Oils, which are liquid at room temperature, are a healthier choice when considering the amount of saturated fat.” And not all foods that are high in saturated fats are greasy, warns Strayer. “I often suggest my patients think of a time when they baked cookies, and all the sticks of butter the recipe required. Cookies aren’t greasy, but they’re usually loaded with saturated fat.” Cheese and other dairy foods usually are high in saturated fat, says Strayer. “Eating yogurt isn’t going to cause heart disease, but most dairy products should be eaten in moderation.”

  • Sodium. Do not add salt when preparing foods. If you want to lower your blood pressure, reduce your salt intake to no more than a teaspoon a day (2,400 mg). Follow the DASH plan (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) for a proven way to lower high blood pressure and reduce the workload on your arteries.
  • Red meat. Eat sparingly and choose the leanest cuts available.
  • Foods and drinks with added sugar. Sugars give you no nutrients but add extra calories.
  • Alcohol. Women should limit alcoholic drinks to one per day. Men should have no more than two drinks per day. Consider the amount of carbohydrates and sugar in wine, says Strayer. “One glass may be OK and even have some benefits, but don’t forget about the sugars and carbs you’re consuming.”

Beware of the pitfalls of eating out, where you have little control over portion sizes or ingredients used to prepare your food. The AHA offers Tips for Dining Out to help you make smart choices, whether you’re opting for fast food or fine dining.

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