“Eat a heart-healthy diet to prevent heart disease.” We’ve all heard it. But that doesn’t mean that everyone knows what a heart-healthy diet entails. New information is constantly coming out, and the latest studies are showing that a Mediterranean diet is one of the best for heart health. In this article, I’ll talk about the benefits of following a Mediterranean diet, along with some other do’s and don’ts of eating for optimal heart health.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet grew popular when studies revealed that countries around the Mediterranean Sea, such as Italy and Greece, had much less heart disease compared to America. This way of eating emphasizes a lot of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and a moderate intake of lean proteins and healthy fats. Foods high in added sugars, saturated and trans fats, and high-fat dairy or animal products are very limited with this eating pattern.
If you’re thinking about shifting your eating patterns toward a more Mediterranean-like diet, it’s nice to know that there are no strict rules. While everything should be eaten in moderation, it’s not forbidden to go above a certain number of carbs or grams of fat in a day, which makes this diet much more approachable and sustainable in the long run. It’s easy enough to remember that a balanced meal should include at least three food groups, so for example, an ideal lunch or dinner would fill half of your plate with veggies, a quarter with whole grains, and a quarter with a lean protein.
Don’t Cut Out All Fats
Contrary to the popular belief that a fat-free diet is best for the heart, you actually still need good fats in your diet. Good fats are polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and omega-3 fatty acids, and can help lower LDL, or bad cholesterol. These fats can be found in avocados, nuts, fatty fish like salmon or tuna, and olive oil to name a few.
They’re important to include in your diet because they help absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat also takes longer to break down than carbs or protein, so it keeps hunger at bay. If you’re having a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, you’ll stay fuller longer by adding in a small handful of walnuts for a healthy dose of omega-3’s.
The fats that you DO want to cut back on, or even eliminate, are saturated fats, trans fats, and high-fat dairy or animal protein. These types of fats can actually contribute to heart disease by raising HDL, or bad cholesterol, and promoting obesity. While olive oil is a good fat, that doesn’t mean all cooking oils are good. We’re coming off a coconut oil craze where people put it in everything because they thought it was healthy for them. But coconut oil is actually 92% saturated fat, and isn’t considered heart healthy. That’s why it’s so important to read labels and be aware of what you’re consuming.
Do Eat Enough Fiber
Fiber is easily forgotten, but is extremely heart healthy as it can reduce levels of bad cholesterol, decrease your risk of stroke and diabetes, lower blood pressure, and aid in weight loss. The best way to get fiber is by consuming whole foods such as oats, oat bran, barley, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, beans, legumes, and quinoa. If you find yourself falling short, you can always take a fiber supplement to help fill in any gaps. But the majority of your fiber intake should be from food sources.
If you’re thinking about adopting a heart-healthy diet, be realistic and figure out ways to help you stick with it until it becomes second nature. Keep a food log and make sure to review it to see what realistic changes you can make and where you can cut back. I recommend making small changes at a time and maintaining a flexible attitude. Don’t say you’ll never have cake or donuts again because that’s simply not realistic. Be patient with yourself, make realistic goals, and monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol to track progress.
It’s important to note that nutrition alone cannot prevent or fully reverse the effects of heart disease. But a healthy diet paired with exercise and a healthy lifestyle can definitely slow the progression of it. And if you’ve already experienced a heart attack or some other repercussion of heart disease, it’s not too late to make healthy lifestyle changes. In fact, it’s now more important than ever to try and slow the progression of plaque buildup. If you’re in this situation, cardiac rehab is a wonderful program to help you ease into an active and heart-healthy lifestyle.
If it all feels too overwhelming, download a nutrition app or make an appointment with a registered dietitian. They can help you navigate a new diet, give recipe makeovers and snack ideas, help you decipher nutrition labels, and offer sustainable lifestyle changes for optimal heart health.