By Monique Richard MS, RDN, LDN
February is a month focused on love but it also is the month for heart health, perfectly fitting. Why not start showing more love to your heart by what you eat but also how you strengthen it physically and nourish it emotionally, spiritually?
Do you adore the beloved combination of fat, salt, and sugar a.k.a. candy, desserts, cakes, crackers, fried foods, and snack foods? They’re pretty tasty, right? It’s safe to say that most Americans would answer with a resounding “YES!” These foods can definitely be enjoyed, especially during special occasions or events (like Valentine’s Day), but when eaten in excess and often, they can be detrimental to health and longevity as well as quality of life. They can impact heart health in many different ways all leading to similar outcomes.
Cardiovascular disease, or heart disease, is the number one killer in the United States. Yet, the truth of the matter is that it is PREVENTABLE. Sure, genetic predispositions and some uncontrollable compounding factors play a role, but taking care of your heart—and all your organs, systems, and body for that matter—has a lot to do with what you put in your mouth. How often you move and behavioral and environmental factors affect your heart health, too. It may be the month for Valentine’s and showing love for someone special, but don’t forget to show some love for that amazing muscular organ keeping you alive… by caring for your heart and putting thought and care in your diet—for life!
FAT – Fat is the calorie king of the three macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates). Per gram it has more than double the calories of protein and carbohydrates. It is an essential part of the diet and a critical element in helping our bodies run smoothly, but it can also be the cause of many health-related problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure just to name a few. So keep in mind that eliminating unnecessary fat is worth its weight in gold.
Although fat is high in calories, research continues to show that healthy fatty acids contribute to heart health, joint health, and help our body in converting other nutrients to assist the brain, muscle, and variety of cell functions. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats tend to raise HDL (good) cholesterol, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, support cognitive function and help our bodies absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. Some specific examples of foods high in mono and polyunsaturated fats include canola oil, olive oil, nuts (any unsalted variety), seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, chia, etc.), and avocadoes to name a few. The key is portion control. A serving of nuts is 1-2 ounces, as is 2 tbsp. of oil used for salad dressing or cooking. A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) can help you determine the exact amount of fat needed in your diet, sources, and uses. The RDN can also discuss further information related to GMO/non-GMO sources and concerns, benefits, manufacturing processes and tips of what to look for when shopping.
Typically, an individual needs 25-35% of their total calories to be from fat (~56 gm for someone on 2,000 calorie diet). The American Heart Association recommends reducing saturated fat to 5-6% of total calories (11-13 gm for someone eating 2,000 calorie diet) and limiting cholesterol intake to <300 mg a day for most people, some may even need <200 mg if they have suffered a heart attack or are at risk for heart disease. To put that number into perspective, one egg yolk contains about 184-213 mg (depending on size). So theoretically, your cholesterol intake could be exceeded by the end of breakfast!
Read the labels of processed foods from crackers to vegetable oil spreads, and you may notice partially hydrogenated oil listed as an ingredient. Without getting too scientific, steer clear of anything hydrogenated. It is a chemical process I won’t bore you with here, but it is unnatural and your arteries will thank you for avoiding it.
Limit, or eliminate, the amount of animal products consumed whenever you can within your own individual needs; they are high in saturated fat and have been linked to the clogging of arteries. The sooner and more often you can trim the unhealthy fat, the better. Get healthy fats from plant sources, but still be smart about portions. Coconut oil is a great example, it is derived from a plant but still high in saturated fat and calories; use it sparingly, but enjoy!
SALT – The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams, while the American Heart Association recommends limiting daily sodium intake to less than 1,500 milligrams especially if you have comorbidities (more than one serious health condition). Just one teaspoon of table salt (a combination of sodium and chloride) contains approximately 2,300 milligrams of sodium. Keep in mind it is not just the need to limit table salt. Processed foods and beverages contain plenty of sodium as well and need to be factored into the daily limit. Most Americans are getting over 3400 mg a day, many convenience and fast-food meals have more than 1200 mg a serving.
If you have ever been on a low-sodium diet or heard of the DASH diet you are familiar with the fact that keeping sodium levels low can be a challenge and maybe even quite boring. For heart health, lowering sodium can and should be done, but doesn’t have to be bland. Lower salt intake slowly so that your taste buds and body can get adjusted. This will also transition your sense receptors to be more aware when something is higher in salt and you may not be as tempted to have it. Use spices and fresh herbs instead of salt to flavor in cooking and finished dishes.
Let’s revisit sodium’s function. Sodium helps maintain the right balance of fluids in your body, transmits nerve impulses, and helps muscles relax and contract. But your kidneys cannot eliminate excess sodium as easily when there are high levels; it begins to build up and accumulate in your blood. Sodium attracts and holds water, therefore making your blood volume increase. This, in turn, makes your heart work harder to move more blood vessels, increasing pressure in your arteries. High blood pressure, or hypertension, can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and congestive heart failure if left untreated. Some people are more sensitive than others. Be sure you know what your blood pressure numbers are along with any family history of hypertension or salt sensitivity.
So where is all this extra salt hiding? High levels of sodium are mostly found in:
• Bread, bagels, muffins
• Prepared dinners such as pasta and ‘heat-n-serve’products
• Meat and egg dishes
• Cold cuts, deli meats, and bacon
• Soft drinks and pre-made beverages
• Sauces and condiments (for example one Tbsp. (15 millimeters) of soy sauce, has about 1,000 mg of sodium)
• Fast foods
When reading labels and ingredient lists know that sodium can have other names as well or ingredients that include salt or sodium-containing compounds, such as:
• Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
• Baking soda
• Baking powder
• Disodium phosphate
• Sodium aliginate
• Sodium nitrate or nitrite
Avoiding products with more than 200 mg of sodium per serving is a general rule of thumb—the lower (140 mg/serving is considered low), the better. Always read the label and be sure you understand sodium is calculated per serving; if it is something you have two servings of, like a can of soup, simply double the amount of sodium to get the most accurate figure.
Eat more fresh, whole foods instead of processed. Know that salt is necessary, but moderation and low intake is key. Drink plenty of water to help your kidneys flush out excess sodium. Take down the salt… don’t let the salt take you down!
SUGAR – The American Heart Association recommends limiting yourself to 100 calories a day of added sugar (about 25 grams or 6 ½ teaspoons) for women, and 150 calories (about 38 grams or 9 ½ teaspoons) for men. Less is better.
What you can do? Be a smarter consumer by:
• Reading labels and avoiding foods high in high fructose corn syrup or any sugar whether from beets, cane, agave syrup, brown rice, etc.
• Limit fruit juices to a cup a day, maximum.
• Avoid sweetened beverages, even diet drinks are up for debate.
• Only drink half of the “normal” serving of a 12 or 20 oz. bottled beverage or ask for a kid’s size at restaurants.
• Enjoy fresh fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth.
• Buy plain yogurt and add fruit toppings yourself to avoid unnecessary added sugar.
• Be aware that “no added sugar” does not mean it does not contain sugar at all. Look at the ingredients to get the best information.
Sugar has been used for thousands of years in food preservation as a flavor enhancer, as an additive to help with the cooking of food, and as decoration. It has many useful and desirable benefits in food and can be enjoyed by all when done so in moderation and as part of a varied and balanced diet. Get your sweetheart that chocolate, but go for higher percentage of cocoa, dark chocolate, 1-2 ounces (2 small stamp-size squares) or chocolate covered strawberries. In addition, focus on strengthening your hearts together with a hike, love and lots of laughter! For more information on your needs, contact me at www.eatrightrx.com