Food is your friend and your biggest foe. A healthy diet sustains us, but a poor diet can raise blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar levels and weight and put you at risk for heart disease.
“Diet is just one component of the overall cause of heart disease,” says Donna Arnett, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Epidemiology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health and past-president of the American Heart Association. But, Arnett says, it can exert a strong influence.
Heart disease is the most common cause of death for both men and women in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis, or a hardening of the arteries caused by build-up of plaque.
Sodium also is considered the culprit for the one in three Americans who develops high blood pressure. Sodium attracts water into your cells; the increased fluid raises your blood pressure and subsequently raises your risk of stroke and heart attack, heart failure and death, Arnett says.
Race also plays a role in risk. UAB researchers recently examined the effects of sodium intake by race using data from the ongoing Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke and found a stronger association with death in black participants than whites, says Suzanne Judd, assistant professor of biostatistics at UAB and the study’s lead author. Blacks with the highest sodium intake (average of 2,600 mg/day) had a 62 percent increased risk of dying, while whites had no increased risk, she said.
“This supports the AHA recommendation that there may need to be race-specific sodium guidelines, but everyone should reduce their sodium intake,” Judd says. The AHA has an aggressive sodium goal of 1,500 mg per day for everyone.
What constitutes a heart-healthy diet?
First, Arnett says, increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat daily, especially the leafy kind.
“This provides more potassium, which is associated with lower blood pressure,” Arnett says. “Fresh is the best source for fruits and vegetables, but canned versions can provide nutrition.”
The primary drawback to canned and frozen foods is added sodium. But Arnett offers a solution: “Rinse these foods before cooking to help reduce sodium. Once rinsed, I think they are a great option for people on the go.”
Fish also is on Arnett’s list of better food choices.
“You should eat fish twice per week; fish are sources of the good fats associated with reduced risk of heart disease,” says Arnett.
Fish doesn’t have to be fresh every time. Arnett says alternatives like canned tuna and sardines will do. She says that the AHA recommends two 3.5 oz. servings per week, or about two small cans of tuna.
When preparing your food, limit saturated fats such as those in butter, hard cheeses and red meats.
“Avoid trans fats because they raise your bad cholesterol levels. So read food labels and look for partially hydrogenated oils, which is another name for trans fats,” Arnett says.
Fats considered to be suitable for low consumption — avocados, nuts, olives and olive oil — are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which can help reduce the cholesterol levels in your blood and lower your risk of heart disease.
A big calorie-causing culprit is sodas and sports and energy drinks, Arnett says.
“The hidden sugars in these beverages are a common cause of weight gain among young people. Limiting yourself to two 12 oz. cans per week to reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes,” Arnett says.
Arnett says keeping a food diary is one of the most effective tools for monitoring eating habits and ensuring they are healthy.
Also, Arnett recommends mylifecheck.heart.org, a helpful website provided by the AHA that outlines Life’s Simple 7, which are the seven steps you need to practice to live a heart-healthy life.