February is American Heart Month. Heart disease is something that is close to my heart as both of my Grandpa’s passed away from heart attacks. Did you know that 4 of 5 heart attacks in men are preventable? According to research done by Finnish scientists the majority of heart attacks in men can be avoided by following these five healthy behaviors: moderate physical activity, healthy diet, don’t smoke, drink moderately (2 drinks or less per day), and maintain a normal body weight. This particular study was performed only on men, but other studies have found similar results for women. Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States.
I think most of us agree that those are all healthy behaviors which we should work towards in order to feel good and prevent a whole range of chronic diseases. But what exactly is meant by a “healthy diet?” I can list a slew of things that comprise a healthy diet: high fiber, low saturated fat, high intake of phytochemicals, minimal added sugar, etc etc. But those recommendations might be meaningless unless you have a nutrition textbook with you. So I have prepared a list of simple food swaps which are heart healthy and uncomplicated.
Swap salted peanuts for unsalted walnuts. Walnuts are the only nut that have heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts have been shown to help reduce cholesterol when you eat at least one ounce per day. One ounce is equivalent to one handful or about 12-15 nuts. An added bonus is that walnuts are rarely salted and will not contribute to added sodium in your diet. If walnuts seem a bit plain to you toast them for 5-10 minutes to bring out a richer flavor. You can eat walnuts plain, on oatmeal, in salads, and in the best homemade granola ever.
Swap steak for salmon. Like walnuts, salmon is filled with heart healthy omega-3’s. Salmon has a slight advantage over most vegetarian sources of omega-3’s because it contains DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) which is the kind of fatty acid used by our bodies. Walnuts contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) which has to be converted to EPA and DHA. In the conversion process some of the health benefits are lost. The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish like tuna or salmon at least twice per week. If you are vegetarian you might want to consider taking an omega-3 supplement which contains EPA and DHA.
Swap raisins for blueberries. Blueberries are an antioxidant powerhouse and they are an excellent source of fiber. They are quick and easy to eat, the same way that raisins are, but they are much lower in sugar and calories. A 1 cup serving of blueberries has 80 calories, 15 grams of sugar, and 4 grams of fiber. Where a 1/2 cup serving of raisins has 200 calories, 40 grams of sugar and 2.5 grams of fiber. Need a good blueberry recipe? Try these amazing muffins.
Swap cow milk for soy milk. Even if you are drinking non-fat milk you are still getting some cholesterol and saturated fat from your milk. If you are drinking 2% or whole milk then you are getting quite a bit. Soy is cholesterol free and has isoflavones which have been shown to help reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol. I like soy milk as a better substitute than almond milk because the nutrient profile of soy milk is very similar to cow milk, both have 8 grams of protein and the same amount of calcium. Almond milk only has 1 gram of protein.
Swap sugary cereal for oatmeal. Oatmeal is the original cholesterol-lowering food. In particular the soluble fiber found in oatmeal helps block the absorption of cholesterol. When it comes to oatmeal buy the oats in the cylinder jar (quick-cooking or old-fashioned is fine). Don’t buy those little packets, not only are they filled with sugar but they are more processed and have some of the fiber and protein removed. If you need your oatmeal to be a little sweet add fresh fruit and a pinch of cinnamon sugar.
Swap T.V. time for treadmill time. This one is pretty obvious, but I can’t write a heart healthy article without mentioning exercise. You don’t even have to really swap, you can do both at the same time. Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity per week, for your heart and your sanity.