American Heart Month: 7 Tips for a Heart Healthy Diet
Over half of all cases of heart disease are associated with a poor diet. Sometimes a healthy lifestyle seems difficult to adopt: the world is not only full of unhealthy options, but they also tend to be cheaper and more convenient than high-quality food. That's why many people turn to diets centered on weight loss, which have a high chance of regaining that weight later.
Adopting a healthy diet and good lifestyle changes takes time, consistency, and patience. Gradual, simple changes with an eye towards overall wellness will make more of a difference than a crash diet, and that's why today we're giving you strategies about how you can incorporate dietary changes!
1. Stay Hydrated
Drinking enough water helps maintain the balance of your bodily fluids, improves kidney function (which cleanses your system of waste products), and helps maintain bowel function. Thirst can easily be mistaken for hunger, so those hunger pangs you get during the day might just be your body telling you it needs hydration. By reaching for that bottle of water first, you can help yourself avoid snacking or overeating. Water is also the perfect substitute for beverages with high sugar and carbohydrate content, and can be flavored with natural sources such as lemon, lime, cucumber, or pineapple.
2. Make Simple Substitutions
Replacing soda with water is just one example of how you can gradually switch to healthier, more nutritious options without rebelling or missing problem foods and drinks. Drinks in particular can be a major source of excess sugar and calories, which you might not notice because they don't fill you up or take as much time to consume. Some substitution options may include:
- 100-percent whole grain or whole wheat bread instead of refined/white bread.
- Oatmeal or a 100-percent whole grain cereal instead of sweet cereal.
- Brown rice instead of white rice.
- 100-percent whole wheat pasta instead of refined wheat pasta.
- Real butter instead of margarine.
- Olive oil or coconut oil instead of vegetable oils.
You're probably noticing a pattern developing with some of these options: whole grain or whole wheat products are preferable to refined wheat flour ones. Refined products lose the fiber that whole grains and wheat contain, and are much less filling.
You'll also notice we didn't mention snacks, which could be a topic on its own. Luckily, the American Cancer Society has some great suggestions here.
3. Learn the Labels
Food labels can be misleading. What seems like a reasonable amount of calories, fat, carbohydrates, sodium, or sugar often becomes staggering when you realize how small the serving size is. Learning how to understand food labels takes a bit of experience, but fortunately there are guides available.
Beyond serving sizes, knowing what to look for on food labels will help you find foods that are nutritionally rich and avoid foods high in empty calories or artificial trans fats. Substances like high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil are damaging to our health, but are cheap and have a long shelf life, and because of this are added to many processed foods. Watch for these terms on your food labels.
4. Reduce Portion Size
This goes along with our previous tip. People tend to underestimate how much food they're taking in -- according to some studies by as much as 25%! We tend to match our portions to our plate size, because it's an easy visual guide. Additionally, restaurants make a lot of money upselling us on larger sizes, especially on items with high profit margins and low food costs like beverages. Luckily there are many guides online that help you visualize a proper portion size by comparing them to common objects you're familiar with.
Pay attention to the heaviness and density of food, too. Denser foods like meat, pastas, breads, and cheeses can be filling with smaller portion sizes. Lighter options and water-based foods like vegetables, fruits, and soups should make up a larger portion of your meal.
One last note here: never eat out of the box or bag. You're almost guaranteed to eat a larger portion than you intend.
5. Collect Recipes
The internet is full of healthy recipes that are easy to make and affordable, as well as embody the idea of making simple, healthy substitutions. Building up a portfolio of these, especially ones that share ingredients to make shopping easier, can do wonders for your diet. Definitely search for ones that make ample use of herbs and spices for flavor instead of heavier options like sauces.
6. Practice Meal Planning
This is one of our more difficult tips. Not everyone has the time or resources to plan meals out for the week, and it's tough to find foods that satisfy everyone in a family full of people with different tastes. There's an entire industry of celebrity chefs and food experts trying to make you feel like you're not doing enough for your family, all of whom coincidentally have the answer if you'll just buy their book. Becoming a well-rounded family or even solo chef isn't an overnight process! It's trial-and-error, and heavily impacted by your family's tastes and your food budget. But with an eye towards the right ingredients and experience towards shopping to maximize their use, you can put together satisfying, nutritionally rich meals that work for you and your family. In addition, planning can help reduce our reliance on fast food, frozen dinners, and other premade, unhealthy options.
7. Don't Stress Out!
We're surrounded by rigid advice on eating better and losing weight, not to mention carefully cultivated Instagram feeds of obnoxiously attractive people with bad health advice hiding behind some inspirational quotes and a cute font. Spoiler alert? It's a scam. The world is full of people selling the idea of achievable, holistic perfection. Shut them out. You're doing this for your health and your family's health, and part of being healthy is relaxing and enjoying life. Striving for perfection is an easy way to burn yourself out on healthy choices and make unhealthy choices seem that much more enticing. Many dieticians suggest the 80-20 Rule: eat well 80% of the time, and the other 20% of the time you can make a fun but reasonable choice. You don't have to excommunicate cake or ice cream from your life! Just eat a moderate amount at appropriate times. If you think of your week as 21 meals and allow yourself some leeway with 4 of them, you can still maintain a healthy diet while enjoying it.