Heart Health 101: UAB expert offers top tips for heart-healthy diet

A healthy lifestyle is about small changes over time that build upon each other.
Written by: Katherine Kirk
Media contact: Anna Jones

Stream healthy dietA healthy lifestyle is about small changes over time that build upon each other.February is American Heart Month, but heart health is important all year round. Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., a cardiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Cardiovascular Institute, says making small lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of heart disease and the use of medications to regulate health.

A healthy lifestyle is about making small changes over time that build upon each other. Jackson says it is never too early to start thinking about heart health.

“Data shows that starting a healthy lifestyle at a young age can help reduce heart disease later in life,” Jackson said.  

Jackson says not every meal has to be perfect. Starting with one meal or one day of healthy eating may help build a healthy dietary pattern over time. Regardless of whether a patient has a history of heart disease, Jackson says, regular checkups and lifestyle changes are important. 

“Diet and physical activity are foundational to heart health,” Jackson said. “If medication for heart health is necessary, healthy diet and regular activity can amplify or enhance what your medication is already doing.”

Eating healthy

Restaurants can be places of anxiety for individuals trying to eat healthy due to a lack of options, portion size and not knowing the food’s nutritional facts. Jackson says there are a couple of ways to navigate eating out.

“Choose a restaurant that has more options and look at the menu ahead of time, so willpower doesn’t always have to be there,” Jackson said. “In addition to choosing heart-healthy options at restaurants, I also recommend cooking at home to be able to maintain a healthy and balanced diet.”

When cooking at home, Jackson says, people have more control over which ingredients are included in the dish, and they can adjust these ingredients based on their preferences. Cooking at home also saves money. Each year, UAB Medicine partners with the American Heart Association to develop a heart-healthy recipe book filled with delicious, simple and affordable meals that everyone can make at home.  

When it comes to suggesting a diet change for heart health, the Mediterranean diet is often discussed. While the Mediterranean diet is a good heart-healthy option, Jackson says there is no “one size fits all” type of diet and that it is important to look at the bigger picture to decide what is best for the patient.  

“Diet is personal,” Jackson said. “Not every diet aligns with the patient’s cultural heritage or lifestyle, so our goal as cardiologists is to work with the patient and tailor their diet to meet their specific needs. We also need to work with the patient on a plan for how they can stick to this diet and focus more on how to help them make small changes they can stick to.”

Jackson says eating complex carbs and plant-based proteins, limiting red meat, and controlling portion sizes are the best ways to start eating for health. Incorporating these behaviors into at least one day of eating a week can benefit overall health.

To supplement or not to supplement

Supplements can be a good way to assist individual health by supporting elements of your diet that are missing. However, Jackson says, getting nutrients through one’s diet is the best way to get the nutrients the body needs since the supplement industry is not regulated.

“Supplements are a billion-dollar industry, and unfortunately, it is not regulated like prescription drugs are,” Jackson said.

Jackson recommends getting one’s nutrients from their food by using the colorful plate method and making sure one’s plate has a colorful pattern of fruits and vegetables.  

“Make sure your plate is colorful as different colored vegetables contain different nutrients,” Jackson said. “Vegetables such as carrots contain completely different nutrients than kale, so by trying to incorporate different color patterns into your meals, you can provide your body with a range of nutrients that it needs.” 

She warns against relying on supplements and powders to get protein since protein powders and bars can be very processed and have added sugars

“For some people, multivitamins might be a good idea; but I suggest talking with a health care professional about the specific vitamins you may need,” Jackson said.  

Healthy fats

Two of the scariest words in the realm of dieting are fats and sugar. However, Jackson says, this fear is unwarranted as a healthy amount of fats is needed for the body to run.

When it comes to fats, there are choices individuals can make that will benefit their overall health; Jackson says choosing liquid fats over trans fats is a good place to start. Trans fats were created to extend the shelf life of fats and can have negative effects on the body.

“Liquid fats, also known as polyunsaturated fats, are better for you,” Jackson said. “You really want to stay away from trans fats, because they are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

Saturated fats are often found in processed foods, and while Jackson says saturated fats are not as bad for the body as trans fats, people should still try to limit the amount of saturated fats they consume.   

“If you’re having a piece of toast and you want butter on it, small amounts are OK if the other parts of your diet are more balanced,” Jackson said. “However, in general we want to try to get away from processed foods that have a lot of saturated fats in them.”

Each year, UAB Medicine partners with the American Heart Association to develop a heart-healthy recipe book filled with delicious, simple and affordable meals that everyone can make at home.

Stay away from sugar

“Sugary foods and beverages should be minimized for heart health,” Jackson said. “If you are craving something sweet, having a piece of fruit can help you enjoy something sweet while watching your sugar intake.”  

Jackson says enjoying some chocolate once in a while is perfectly fine but warns against indulging in sugary drinks and sodas as they are the biggest culprit of sugar overindulgence.

“Sugary drinks and sodas are often a major source of sugar and excess calories for people,” Jackson said. “They are easy to consume without realizing you are overindulging. Be especially careful with children and drinking too much juice.” 

Coffee, energy drinks and alcohol

A common misconception is that caffeine is bad for heart health, but Jackson says that coffee is OK in moderation. However, she recommends avoiding highly caffeinated beverages such as energy drinks.  

“Energy drinks tend to have a lot more caffeine and sugar and are more processed,” Jackson said.  

When it comes to drinking alcohol, Jackson says it is important to stick to moderate levels of drinking as heavy drinking is linked to poor health outcomes, including heart conditions. If one does choose to drink, she says it should be done in moderation and in combination with a balanced diet.

Veganism and Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism and veganism are seen as very healthy ways of living. A common misconception is that people who are vegetarians and vegans do not get enough protein in their diets to be healthy. However, Jackson says this line of thinking is false. There are many ways to get protein that does not come from meat.

Diet changes should come with an evaluation of nutritional needs and how to keep them met. However, Jackson says there are plenty of ways to get protein from a plant-based diet. 

The AHA recommends choosing healthy sources of proteins. Healthy proteins can be found in plant sources such as beans, peas, lentils and nuts.

“If you are going to eliminate certain foods, you need to think about how it affects your nutritional composition as a whole, even if you are a meat-eater,” Jackson said.

Get moving

Physical activity is known to reduce risk for cardiovascular disease. Current recommendations for heart health are 100 to 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity. However, Jackson says any movement can be beneficial.

Jackson says one of the best ways to incorporate physical activity throughout the week is to start with 10 minutes a day as this can still offer some heart-healthy benefits.

“Physical activity does not always mean that you have to go to a gym,” Jackson said. “Start out with a 10-minute walk, or choose to park a little farther away from the entrance of a store. Maybe the next week, you try to get two 10-minute bouts of exercise in a day, which would give you 20 minutes of exercise, and just continue to gradually work your way up to where you are getting the recommended 150 minutes a week.”

She also expressed the importance of physical activity when it comes to healthy aging.

“Talk with your physician about what type of exercise is best for you,” Jackson said. “In addition to aerobic exercises, including exercises that help increase your strength and balance is also important since we lose muscle mass as we age.”