How to Eat for Heart Health

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If you’ve ever been advised to change your diet to be more heart healthy, you’ve probably been instructed to do some combination of the following: Slash saturated fat. Fill up on fiber. Cut sodium. Add Omega 3s. Eliminate sugar.

Immediately, flashbacks of bland broiled white fish, plain brown rice, and unseasoned steamed broccoli begin to fill your mind. And, it seems as though you’ve got a choice – to eat for heart health or to enjoy your food.

You’re torn, because you truly want to eat in a way that supports your health. But, history shows that every time you’ve tried to subscribe to a set of heart-healthy food rules – you know, replace all red meat with chicken and fish, eat salad at every meal, remove the salt shaker from the table, and cut out all dessert – it’s been an epic failure. (To clarify, you are not an epic failure, but those types of eating plans rarely yield lasting results – they are pretty much programmed to fail from the start.)

Maintaining a Heart-Healthy Eating Plan

The first step – rethinking the way in which we define “heart-healthy.”

To be clear, I do believe diet plays a role in promoting and maintaining health, including heart health. It’s true that some foods and nutrients are more effective at supporting heart health than others. And, I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting to eat in a way that supports overall health.

However…

I also believe that the way in which we are often trained to “eat for health,” is not sustainable for the vast majority of people. And, in many cases, even paves the way toward disordered eating behaviors, which are not consistent with health goals.

That’s because we quickly turn these diet “tips” into food rules. Our thinking about what and how much to eat becomes very all-or-nothing, black-or-white. We are either on the plan – eating nothing but super heart-healthy fare – or entirely off the plan – eating what we perceive to be the furthest thing from heart-healthy fare.

We find ourselves stuck, swinging from one eating extreme to the other.

So, what does heart-healthy eating really look like? To me, it emphasizes these 4 tenets:

Balance.

Essentially that means incorporating all foods groups into your eating plan – fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy (or dairy alternative), proteins (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes), fats and oils.

This helps to ensure that the body gets adequate carbohydrate, fiber, protein, and fat, with lots of vitamins and minerals at most meals – because the body needs all of these nutrients.

Balance is not overemphasizing one food group (like lean proteins) while nearly eliminating another (like carbohydrate).

Curious to see what that looks like if you are trying to eat for heart health? The Green Mountain Guide to Supportive Eating provides a framework that can help start of practice of balanced eating.

I like to think about promoting balance within eating as seeing the big picture – it’s not about isolated foods, nutrients, or ingredients – it’s about how all of these different pieces come together to create a nutritionally robust and delicious meal.

Thinking about it from this perspective can help us approach the idea of eating for heart-health with greater flexibility, while still ensuring we get everything we need without too much of any one particular nutrient (like saturated fat!).

For example, instead of vowing to never eat a steak again because, well, red meat is high in saturated fat and saturated fat is bad for the heart, it’s thinking about how you might balance out this choice with other foods in that meal and throughout the day that are lower in saturated fat.

You might choose to use olive oil, high in heart-healthy unsaturated fat, on your vegetables with that meal instead of butter. You might incorporate leaner protein sources into your meals on other days to moderate total saturated fat intake.

Variety

Variety means choosing plenty of different foods from within each food group. This helps ensure you get a wide variety of nutrients. It also prevents boredom, which promotes greater satisfaction from eating experiences and can actually help to reduce overeating.

What does variety look like when you are eating for heart-health?

Over the course of a week that might include a combination of plant and animal based protein foods – beef, chicken, pork, eggs, beans, peanut butter, and a couple servings of omega-3 rich fish. Those protein sources might be served with a variety of starchy vegetables and grains – white rice, whole wheat pasta, potatoes, whole grain bread, corn, and butternut squash. And that’s all served alongside a mix of fruits and vegetables from every hue of the rainbow.

You might add flavor to your meals with a bit of butter or sour cream on some eating occasions and use olive oil and vinaigrettes on others.

Wait a second…White rice? Butter? How is that heart healthy?! Fair question. Do butter and white rice support heart health in the same way that oatmeal and olive oil do? No. Does that mean you should never eat them if you are trying to support your heart health? Not if they are foods that you enjoy.

When you aim to incorporate variety in your diet you can balance out those less heart-healthy options with more heart-healthy options. You can incorporate the foods that you love without sacrificing health because no one particular food or nutrient is dominating your meals.  

Moderation

But, instead of thinking about moderation in terms of setting limits on how much you can have, think about it in terms of creating space to include all foods, including those that, perhaps, in the past you have not.

Moderation is embracing an all-foods-fit mindset and recognizing that too much of any one food, nutrient, or ingredient is not good for overall health. Just like excessive saturated fat, salt, and sugar may not be great for heart, or overall, health, too much kale isn’t good for health, either.

When we practice moderation we prioritize health and pleasure in our eating.

Pleasure

This is ensuring that the foods you choose to put on your plate not only provide your body with necessary fuel and nutrition, but are foods you actually want to eat!

What’s pleasure have to do with heart-health?

When we don’t enjoy the food we eat, as is the case with many diet prescriptions, we feel deprived. Eventually those feelings of deprivation grow so strong that we give in and eat those foods that we’ve been restricting, often to excess.

Patterns of extreme shifts in eating behaviors can have a negative impact on overall health, including heart-health. When you prioritize pleasure in addition to nutrition in your food choices, it helps to establish stable, consistent eating patterns that are both enjoyable and health supportive. And, it helps to decrease episodes of deprivation-driven overeating.

A Flexible Framework to Heart Health

In essence, heart-healthy eating promotes balance, variety, moderation, and pleasure. Rather than a strict set of rules, it’s a flexible framework built on basic principles that you tailor and adapt to suit your particular needs and preferences. It allows you to eat your favorite foods, guilt-free, without feeling as though you are compromising your health. It’s enjoyable. It’s satisfying. It’s health-supportive. And, it’s sustainable.

And although diet does play a role in promoting heart health, heart health depends on more than just what you put on your plate. So as you focus on cultivating and eating plan to care for your ticker, don’t lose sight of all those other important self-care behaviors that no doubt impact the health of your heart – joyful movement, adequate rest, and stress reduction.


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About the Author

Dana Notte, MS, RD, CD

Dana has dedicated her career to helping individuals establish a balanced and healthy relationship with food. She has extensive training and experience in coaching for behavior change, mindful eating, and motivational interviewing. Dana has spent years leading group-based behavior change classes, developing and leading interactive workshops for worksite wellness programs, and providing nutrition counseling to individuals struggling with eating, weight, and chronic health conditions. Her practice style is client-centered, compassionate and empowering, with the goal of helping individuals develop the confidence to achieve their health and wellness goals. Dana is the Nutrition Lead at Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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