Globally and in the United States, attention to the food we eat is growing. Although knowing where foods are sourced and how they are made or farmed is important to health, these factors expand on, rather than replace, the most relevant concerns for our hearts. As we learn more about how to use new and organic ingredients and how to rebalance our plates for more veggies and hormone-free meats, some good diet rules for heart health can be left behind.
Do you know what these golden rules are? Chances are, you’ve heard them, but you might not realize how important they are or how easy they are to break.
To keep your heart muscle strong and to get enough oxygen to the heart and other tissues, you must reduce stress on heart muscle (lower blood pressure and weight) and keep arteries open for blood flow (stop clot buildup). For most people, this means (1) avoiding extra salt and (2) choosing good fats.
These heart-healthy golden rules sound simple. Knowing them and knowing how to follow them, though, are not the same thing.
Spoken rules, unspoken directions
Often, a person’s first encounter with a “heart patient diet” is when silent heart problems like high blood pressure or clogged arteries lead to chest pain or a heart attack. They’re sent away with instructions to live healthier and nothing more.
Or, they’ve received too many instructions about redoing their diets and entire lifestyles on their own. Have you or a friend or family member been in this situation? It can be daunting, and many people opt to simply take medication and “enjoy eating” rather than make big changes to their diet, activity, or both.
But, small changes can become habits that lead to more change and, eventually, to healthier choices for your heart. The two golden rules are a great place to start those small changes.
Why the focus on salt and fat?
Salt, like extra weight, increases stress on the heart, because it increases the muscle’s workload. A small amount of salt is important for cells to stay hydrated and help our bodies function. Too much salt means that too much water stays in blood vessels, though, so the heart has to pump harder to move oxygen around the body.
Not long ago, all fats were considered bad causes of weight gain, but what we know about fats has evolved. Good fats offer neural protection, energy storage, and more. Like choosing organic versus chemical-treated produce, choosing fats that help instead of harm should become second nature. Bad fats collect in artery linings without providing nutrients; better ones actually help clear vessels of plaques.
How can you choose and use wisely?
Salt in moderation is the golden rule here. That means no more than 1 teaspoon of salt (2,300 mg of sodium) in a day. This might not sound like a lot, but 1 serving of soy sauce (1 tablespoon) alone contain almost half of this daily maximum, and many other available prepared or boxed foods are high in salt. Three of the biggest problem sources are deli meats, pizzas, and pre-made fast foods.
Choosing fats might seem harder, because there are so many options. Health problems from trans and saturated fats are big news. But how can you avoid these fats reliably? A good rule of thumb is that fats that are solid at room temperature—stick or jar oils like butter and lard, or fats that can become solid, like palm or coconut oil—are more likely to stick to arteries. Liquid oils, though, are more likely to be used in the body for good, such as to protect nerves. Examples of these liquids are canola, corn, olive, and avocado oils.
[A note on coconut and palm oils: Although it’s true that coconut and palm oils offer some protective omega 6 fats, only small amounts are needed to get that benefit. Because these oils contain even more saturated fat than butter or lard, using them often will easily cross the recommended intake of < 7 grams saturated fats daily.]
How well do we eat for our heart?
A typical family dinner might involve onions and meat fried or sautéed in oil, veggies tossed with salt and butter for taste, and butter and salt on the table to use with breads and sides. Using salt to season raw meat, pasta water, and vegetables is not uncommon, but it can quickly add up.
Seasoning the meat with salt once near the end of cooking, and using olive oil instead of butter, are two ways to make healthier choices quickly.
How to make healthy changes
To focus just on the heart-healthy golden rules, try these changes:
Remove salt and butter from the table at home or even with friends or at restaurants. If it isn’t available, you won’t be as tempted to use it.
When possible, cook the meal yourself. Use healthy liquid oils, and rely on herbs and spices instead of salt. These changes aren’t about avoiding foods, they’re about replacing foods with safer options for your health. Meals don’t need to be fancy or even based on recipes to get started with these improvements, either.
Recognizing good and bad types and amounts of fats does take practice. Start with something you might eat every day and look at the serving size and the percent of saturated fat, or even the name of the oil in the ingredient list. For example, one bag of Pop Tarts contains two full servings, and each one has 13 percent of a day’s saturated fat.
Sometimes it’s stressful to work so hard at eating every single day. Instead of checking numbers every day, use simple online tools, like the USDA FoodTracker, to check your salt and fat intake every so often.
And remember, it’s okay to “fail.” One day with higher doses of salt or fat won’t stop you from ultimately meeting heart goals.
Use peer pressure
Diet changes of any kind usually seem most limiting when we try to keep them while eating with others—whether at homes or dining out. The social importance of sharing and enjoying food together can cause us to eat more than usual and reduces our control over the meal’s ingredients and options. Don’t be afraid to request low-salt and low-butter options when eating with friends or family or at a restaurant. Or, you can be even more vocal and proactive.
Do you see unspoken food choices by loves ones that contribute to silent heart disease? It is okay, but not easy, to explain that you prefer your veggies without salt and butter, and to explain why. You might even save someone else’s heart.