One of the best things you can do for your heart is to follow a heart-healthy diet. Unfortunately, it can be difficult knowing what the experts think “healthy” is. One group tells us that a meat-based diet is the path to health and wellness while another says that plant-based is the only way to go. The result is that many of us are confused about what we should and shouldn’t eat.
Another factor to consider is that, as we get older, our metabolism slows. That change means that our bodies need fewer calories compared to when we were younger. Our nutrition needs also change with age. Specifically, once we hit age 50, our bodies need more vitamin D, calcium, fiber, vitamin B12, and potassium.
Cooking your own meals (instead of grabbing takeout or going to a restaurant) is one of the best ways to control what you eat. But, that’s only half the battle. You still need to know what to cook – which foods love your heart and which ones make it work harder and therefore raise your risk of heart disease. Keep reading to discover heart-healthy changes you can implement at home, as well as pointers for when you’re eating out.
Cut Back on Processed Foods
The average American diet is loaded with processed foods. This includes the chips and cookies we already know we shouldn’t eat, but also pre-packaged and frozen meals.
These foods are fast and convenient (and they usually taste pretty good, too), but they’re also loaded with added sugars and fats. And sodium. Lots and lots of sodium. According to the American Heart Association, around 70 percent of the sodium found in the average American diet comes from processed and pre-packaged foods. That’s before you ever add a dash of salt.
Not all pre-packaged food is bad for you. For example, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables are fine. Just choose options that don’t pack the contents in syrup, oil, or salty sauces. And, as always, read the label.
Add a Fruit and Vegetable Serving to Every Meal
This is one of the easiest ways to improve your heart’s health and make sure your body gets the nutrients it needs. Add some veggies to your morning omelet. Replace that slice of toast with a piece of fruit or dish of berries. Load your lunchtime sandwich with veggies or eat a large salad – or both! Fill half your plate with vegetables before adding your protein.
In fact, rearranging the way you fill your plate is a super-easy way to increase your fruit and veggie intake. Most of us fill our plates this way: meat, starch, and then vegetable. Reverse the order, devoting half of your plate’s “real estate” to the veggies, and you’ll have no problem getting your recommended daily fruit and vegetables.
Get Creative with Your Choices
One of the challenges with lifestyle changes is that they can feel like deprivation. Luckily, this is the age of the Internet; there is a seemingly endless supply of food blogs, recipe sites, and videos devoted to delicious, healthy cooking.
Instead of a slice of pie, try a baked apple instead, or a bowl of fruit salad. Use coconut milk to make dairy-free whipped cream and spoon it over a dish of strawberries. Make your own fruit bars with a bag of frozen berries, a small amount of water, a blender, and a popsicle mold.
If you aren’t keen on searching online for these recipes, head to your local library and check out a couple of heart-healthy cookbooks and start experimenting.
Plan Your Menu
Like everything in life, preparation is the key to success. Decide your meal plan for the week before you head to the grocery store to ensure you have the ingredients on hand when it’s time to eat.
Planning ahead also cuts down on those last-minute takeout nights or runs to the fast food place. And, it saves money, which is a concern for many of us. It may feel more expensive to stock up on fruits and veggies, even the frozen and canned varieties, but it’s actually much cheaper than eating out. And, of course, improving your health through healthy cooking saves on medical expenses down the line.
Eating Healthy at Restaurants
Even with planning ahead, you’ll still eat out occasionally. After all, many of our social interactions revolve around food. You can eat out and still follow a heart-healthy eating plan.
- Look for menu descriptions that include words such as grilled, seared, and baked. Avoid options described as fried, creamy, or cheesy.
- Ordering a salad? Ask for the dressing on the side or avoid it altogether.
- When it’s time to place your drink order, stick with water or iced tea (not flavored teas, those are loaded with sugar).
- If this is a treat and you plan to eat dessert, ask the server to hold the bread basket – or ask your dining companions to keep it on their side of the table.
- Most restaurants serve very large portions. Consider ordering an appetizer instead or sharing an entrée with your dining companion.
- When eating at a buffet or a friend’s house, fill your plate in the order described above: vegetables, lean protein, and then whole grains.
Final Thoughts on Cooking for Your Heart
True healthy eating doesn’t mean dieting. To enjoy lasting health benefits, you want to make sustainable changes to the way you eat. This includes cooking your own meals, cutting back on processed and pre-packaged foods, and replacing unhealthy choices with healthier options.
As always, talk to your doctor before implementing significant changes to your diet. He or she understands your health and is your best source for dietary changes to help improve your heart health.