Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and is responsible for 25 percent of deaths every year. If you knew you were at an increased risk of being part of this 25 percent, would you do whatever you could to keep your heart healthy for as long as possible?
Hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes (three of the key risk factors for heart disease) run deep in my blood. Although I cannot reduce my predisposal to these chronic illnesses based on my family history, I can play a proactive role in the lifestyle factors that impact my heart health such as diet and exercise.
I had the opportunity to learn how diet and nutrition can directly impact our hearts from two local experts, Stephanie Espinoza, MA, RDN, LDN from The Nutrition Professionals and Amy McCallister, RD and owner of AM Nutrition Services, LLC.
“Inflammation is the body’s natural immune response to an injury, an infection or exposure to toxins,” Espinoza said. “Heart disease is associated with chronic inflammation, but did you know that our standard American diet is highly inflammatory? 30 million Americans currently suffer with heart disease while 60 percent of our calories are coming from highly processed foods. Inflammation can cause and/or exacerbate disease, so if our diet is highly inflammatory, we are walking on a razors edge.”
Many people hear the word “diet” and instantly shut down because it seems too difficult to change eating habits. These experts are here to tell you it doesn’t have to be as complicated as you think.
“One of the best parts of being a Registered Dietitian is that most often we are adding foods and enhancing the diet with particular foods that not only improve heart health, but also add fullness and satisfaction,” McCallister said. “I’m always excited to discuss what we can add more of to improve heart health.”
Heart Healthy Additions to Your Diet
Espinoza and McCallister mentioned several foods that are worth considering if you want to benefit your overall heart health. We’ve compiled their feedback into 5 categories in the detailed list below.
1. Fat Sources
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Salmon, tuna, chia seeds, flax seeds
- Monounsaturated fats (especially in place of saturated fats): Avocados, walnuts, almonds, olive oil
- Omega-3s: Known to lower triglycerides, blood pressure, plaque buildup in the arteries, and the overall risk for heart disease and stroke
- Monounsaturated fats: Reduces the LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol, belly fat, blood pressure, while maintaining a great HDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol. Can also help reduce inflammation by balancing the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
2. Anti-Inflammatory Foods
- Strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries
- Olive oil
- Nuts/ seeds
- Fatty fish such as salmon
- Whole grains
- Reduce the stress and inflammation that often leads to heart disease
“Eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods in combination with limiting highly processed foods allows our body to prevent disease rather than letting it progress,” Espinoza said.
3. Natural Fiber Sources
- Apples, oranges, and pears
- Whole grains: Whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, or oats
- Beans/ legumes: Pinto, black, kidney, garbanzo, lentils or edamame
- Reduces the body’s ability to absorb fat
- Lowers cholesterol
- Reduces risk of heart disease
“One to two servings of whole grains per day decreases the risk of heart disease by 10 to 20 percent,” McCallister said.
“Fiber feeds the good bacteria living in your gut which allows for the breakdown and release of short chain fatty acids into the body,” Espinoza said. “These short chain fatty acids have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and aid in fighting chronic disease.”
Espinoza emphasized it is important to check food labels and avoid highly processed foods that have added fiber included in the ingredients list, as this is not a natural fiber source.
4. Heart Healthy Vegetables
- Green leafy: Spinach, romaine, cabbage, collard
- Cruciferous: Cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts
- Green and yellow: Green beans, carrots, bell peppers
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce plaque on artery walls, decreasing risk of heart attack and stroke
“I always recommend half a plate of fruits and vegetables with meals,” McCallister said.
“Polyphenols are micronutrients that are present in plant-based foods,” Espinoza said. “There are many different types of polyphenols that aid the body in different ways.”
- Berries: Blueberries, blackberries, and blackcurrant
- Herbs and spices: Cloves, peppermint, star anise, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary
- Nuts: chestnuts, hazelnuts, pecans
- Vegetables: Artichokes, red onion, spinach, shallots
- Rich in antioxidants that fight against inflammation
- Manage blood pressure
- Improve insulin resistance
- Promote good bacterial growth in the gut
Overall, Espinoza said the best way to get the full nutrient profile our bodies need is to eat a wide variety of whole foods.
Troublemaker Ingredients that Can Aid Heart Disease
While both Espinoza and McCallister approach nutrition with a focus on nutrients you can add to your diet, there are several ingredients they warned of when it comes to increasing your risk of heart disease, including:
- Highly processed foods: Soda, chips, candy, fast food, frozen entrees, processed meats
- Refined carbohydrates: White bread, pasta, pastries, pizza dough, white rice, breakfast cereals
- Can increase blood pressure, clog arteries, and increase fluid retention.
- Added sugars: Soda, tea, desserts, sweet snacks
- Excess amounts can raise blood pressure, triglycerides and increase chronic inflammation, all of which are direct pathways to heart disease.
- Saturated fats: Red meat, dairy products, baked goods, fried foods
- In excess, tends to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in the blood. High cholesterol levels can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
- American Heart Association and Dietary Guidelines for Americans official recommendations for these troublemaker ingredients:
– 25 grams total “added sugars” per day for women, and 36 grams “added sugars” for men per day.
– Saturated fat should stay at or below 7% of our calories—for most people, that’s staying around 12-17 grams of saturated fat per day
– Daily sodium intake should not exceed 2,300 mg if possible (for reference, 1 tsp of table salt = 2,325 mg of sodium
Are These Health Foods Really Healthy? Let’s Settle Some Myths.
Espinoza mentioned there are several foods in the market that are touted as beneficial when they are not. These include:
- Coconut oil
- Myth: It is a healthy fat
- Fact: Coconut oil is a saturated fat, which means it is not a “healthy” fat and will increase inflammation rather than decrease it, due to its ability to raise LDL (better known as the bad cholesterol)
- Pink Himalayan salt
- Myth: A healthier alternative to salt
- Fact: Causes inflammation just as salt does, but it acts more like sea salt because of its large crystals. This means a little goes a long way and it’s easy to over-do it.
- Omega-3 supplementation
- Myth: A great way to get the necessary amount of omega 3 fatty acids
- Fact: Omega 3 and omega 6 are two kinds of fatty acids that are essential to the body. The problem is that Americans are eating diets that consist of too much omega 6 and too little omega 3. Highly processed foods are high in omega 6 fatty acids, so a healthy ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is out of our reach even with supplementation if we are consuming high amounts of highly processed foods.
Protect Your Heart with Nutrition
Now that you have a list of healthy foods, you may be thinking, “How do I start incorporating these into my diet?” You are not alone if you need guidance on the best ways to prepare and enjoy these food recommendations. It can take several months to identify a variety of go-to recipes to get you through each week.
It may help to purchase physical copies of cookbooks from authors whose recipes support the nutrition goals you are trying to achieve. Many of these authors will have a website you can look at beforehand to see if their cooking style aligns with what you are looking for.
Benefits of Working with a Professional
If taking this challenge on alone overwhelms you, that is okay too. In this case, it may be beneficial to work with a registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) to reach your nutrition goals. Espinoza and McCallister shared several benefits of working with a professional, including:
- A personal, individualized experience based on health history, bloodwork, and medications, rather than just fitting you into a generic diet
- Support with the emotional aspect of food and eating, not just physical aspects
- Access to the most updated and reliable nutrition information
- Assistance identifying and making changes to your diet
- Translates the science of food into practical solutions
- Typically covered by health insurance
If you are a member of Arizona Care Network, Stephanie Espinoza, MA, RDN, LDN from The Nutrition Professionals and Amy McCallister, RD and owner of AM Nutrition Services, LLC are both in-network registered dietitians as part of your healthcare plan.
If you would like to schedule an appointment with an in-network registered dietitian, our care coordination team can help you. Call 602.406.7226 or email email@example.com if you need assistance finding an in-network provider, scheduling an appointment, and more.