A heart healthy diet doesn't have to start with the word "no," as in no fat, no salt, no fun.
The myth about a heart healthy diet is that it's rigid and fat-free - in other words, bland. Nutrition experts say it doesn't have to be. A diet that is good for your cardiovascular health and your waistline can still include beef burgundy and chocolate strawberry shortcake.
Nutritionists say that for a diet to be heart healthy, it should be well balanced and include foods from the basic four - fruits and vegetables, meats (leaner is better), dairy (try low-fat), and whole grains. Watch the fat, cholesterol and salt, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), which publishes cookbooks of heart healthy recipes, including ones for beef burgundy and chocolate strawberry shortcake.
Moderation is the keyword
It is always a good idea to talk to your doctor about your specific dietary needs and to learn the best way to improve your diet. As a rule of thumb, "Everything in moderation," adds Robin Vitetta-Miller, M.S., contributing editor to Cooking Light magazine, noting another important guiding principle of a heart healthy diet.
Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, for example, is something that health experts now acknowledge can be healthful. Research shows that the incidence of heart disease is lower in those who drink in moderation (an average of one to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women) than in nondrinkers.
Even fat, that dietary bad guy, is being seen in a different light. Too much of those high-saturated fats can raise the level of cholesterol in your blood and thus speed the development of arteriosclerosis, the build up of fatty deposits in the inner walls of your arteries. Eating too little or no fat, however, may also be harmful.
"One reason is that you miss out on fat-soluble vitamins and on protective benefits of monounsaturated fats," Vitetta-Miller says.
"Fat-soluble vitamins, vitamins A, D, E and K, are only absorbed by the body when fat is present. So if you aren't getting enough fat, you might be deficient in those nutrients as well," she explains.
Not all fats are bad
All fats are not created equal, however, and certain ones provide more benefit than others. There is some evidence, for example, that monounsaturated fats may raise the body's HDL cholesterol, the "good" cholesterol that protects against heart disease.
Olive oil, which is rich in a monounsaturated fat, also contains small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to be beneficial to the heart. Fish and nut and seed oils also contain omega-3 fatty acids.
"There are a couple other factors in favor of certain fats. Fat-free diets can make you feel hungry all the time, thus making it easier to cave in to overeating. They also put some people, particularly children, at risk for nutrient deficiencies," Vitetta-Miller says.
"Putting children on low-fat diets when they're in their growing years is extremely risky," she says. "Children under age of 2 should never be on a low-fat diet."
AHA's fat guideline for Americans over the age of 2 states that total fat shouldn't be more than 30 percent of their daily calories. The Heart Association offers this yardstick for consuming the different types of fat:
- Saturated fatty acids, the main dietary culprit in raising blood cholesterol, should be less than 10 percent of calories. The main sources of saturated fatty acids in the typical American diet are foods from animals (chicken, beef, pork and dairy products, for example) and certain types of plants.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids, found in corn oil and some other liquid vegetable oils, should be 8 percent to 10 percent of calories.
- Monounsaturated fatty acids, such as peanut, olive and canola oil, make up the rest of the total fat intake and should be about 10 percent to 15 percent of calories.
- AHA's dietary guidelines also recommend that you restrict your cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams per day and limit sodium intake to no more than 2,400 milligrams (2.4 grams) per day. Like saturated fat, cholesterol is present in all foods from animal sources, such as meat, fish and poultry, as well as dairy products.
Healthy cooking guidelines
Vitetta-Miller says be careful how you follow AHA's guidelines on fat. People often fry in peanut oil believing it is one of the least evils of the oils. "That's not moderation," she says. "That's a lot of fat, as opposed to sautéing in olive oil."
"Frying not only uses more oil than sautéing, but peanut oil has less monounsaturated fat than olive oil. A tablespoon of peanut oil has 6-1/2 grams of monounsaturated fat out of 14 total grams of fat versus a tablespoon of olive oil with its 10 out of 14 fat grams being monounsaturated," according to Vitetta-Miller.
Vitetta-Miller has several other tips for getting the most mileage out of a heart healthy diet:
- Consider cooking techniques, not just types of foods. Try sautéing, grilling, roasting, broiling or braising in broth instead frying.
- Be wary of foods that use hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats. Trans fats are formed when vegetable oil is hardened to make food products like margarine or shortening. This hydrogenation process produces trans fats, which are worse than saturated fats in terms of their effect on blood cholesterol. Also, sweet fat-free foods "are all sugar."
- Eat more fiber. Experts suggest 25 grams to 35 grams a day. The soluble and insoluble have different effects. Soluble fiber (found in fruits and oats) lowers cholesterol, and insoluble (dried fruits and fruits with seeds such as raspberries) speed things through the digestive tract. Many cereals have added psyllium fiber or bran fiber.
- Eat "natural" foods. The closer you get to the original whole state with less processing, the better off you are. More nutrients are retained in natural foods. So, that means, potatoes versus potato chips.