montana dietitian

5 foods to keep your heart pumping

Did you know February is national heart month?  

As many of you know, I used to work as a clinical dietitian. Working in the hospital, I spent many days covering the cardiac floor, educating patients post-open heart surgery on a heart healthy diet. To some, having open heart surgery was a wake-up call that something in their lifestyle needed to change. However, many of my patients either did not see the connection between diet and overall health or were too stubborn to want to make simple changes.

 

You've probably heard a million times before the keys to a healthy heart -

 

  1. eat more fruits, veggies, beans, and legumes

  2. cut down on processed foods & reduce sodium intake

  3. limit saturated and trans fats & choose more healthy fats

  4. choose lean meats and eat more fish, beans, and legumes

  5. eat whole grains and be sure to get plenty of exercise

 

You get it, I know. But think about it - which of these tips do you actually make a conscious effort to incorporate into your daily life? When was the last time you ate salmon or shrimp? How many servings of fruits & veggies did you eat yesterday? (at least 5 is ideal!) When nutrition information is thrown at us in a million directions, it's difficult to know where to start - I get it. This week (no matter when you're reading this), I challenge you to choose one of the above, make it specific and doable, and set it as your goal for this coming week.

 

 
 

Many people have the attitude that they're young and healthy, or they exercise 5 days/week, or they've been eating this way for years. They think they can eat whatever junk they want as long as it doesn't show on their waist. I'm all for moderation, but to me skinny does not necessarily equal healthy.  Whether you're a baby boomer or a gen X 20-something, it's never too late to start taking care of your body to improve your long-term health.

 

Unfortunately, heart disease is the number one killer in the U.S. The good news is- it can be prevented, so why not try through healthy foods and regular exercise. See a few of my favorite heart healthy foods below...


p.s. don't miss out on my awesome newsletter - this month we're talking red wine and chocolate! Scroll down to sign up and learn all about the heart healthy benefits!


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1. Lentils

I love lentils! Not only only are they a great source of fiber and protein but packed with heart healthy vitamins and minerals too. They can be swapped out for meat on your next Meatless Monday (or try half meat, half lentils). They're great in tacos, stuffed peppers, curry, veggie burgers, salads, meatloaf, etc.

Like I said, they're an awesome source of fiber. (If a diet higher in fiber is new to you, introduce fibrous foods slowly to ease in your digestive system.) Soluble fiber in particular can help to reduce the absorption of cholesterol in our bloodstream and lower our LDL ('bad') cholesterol. Lentils are also a good source of folate and magnesium, both associated with a healthy heart.


2. Oatmeal

Think beyond the Quaker packet! Oatmeal is incredibly versatile and is another excellent source of fiber (see above), especially beta-glucan. Beta-glucan can help to reduce LDL and total cholesterol, lower blood sugar, and promote the growth of good gut bacteria. Like other whole grains, oats are a great source of B vitamins. Folate and B6 in particular, have also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. Oats are also known for their avenanthramides - a unique group of antioxidants - an anti-inflammatory compound which may help to lower blood pressure.

The instant packets can be a great option if that is what you like, but they often include additional sugars and ingredients that aren't totally necessary. I would recommend the whole oat options (Old Fashioned, Steel Cut, etc.) for the most nutritional bang for your buck. Have you tried savory oats or overnight oats? They are great with a runny egg and some veggies, or topped with nuts and seeds (omegas, protein, and more). They can also be added to other baked goods or homemade granola bars or can act as a great whole grain alternative to processed bread crumbs.


3. Salmon

Out of the most commonly consumed fish, salmon has the highest concentration of Omega-3 fats. Omega-3s help to lower triglycerides (fatty acids in our bloodstream that may contribute to clotting). Note that fish oil supplements have not been shown to have the same benefits as actually consuming fish. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish 2x/week for the optimal heart healthy benefits.

Salmon is also one of the best food sources of Vitamin D. Research is now showing a link between low levels of vitamin D and heart disease (mark my words, Vitamin D will be BIG this year!) *Please consult your MD or RD before beginning any supplement.

(You can also try walnuts & chia seeds for more omega-3s, and cow's milk for vitamin D)


4. Avocado

Avocados are a staple in my house. They are a great source of monounsaturated fats which can help to improve LDL levels. By replacing saturated fats with monounsaturated fats (think Mediterranean diet) you are doing wonders for your long term heart health. Avocadoes are also a great source of fiber (see above), potassium, and vitamin E (an antioxidant!). Many of us do not get enough potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte and is essential for muscle contraction. It can help to lower blood pressure by lessening the effects sodium has on blood pressure. 

Try substituting some of the butter on your toast with avocado; swapping some of the oil in your baked goods with pureed avocado; or including avocado slices on salads or sandwiches. 


5. Tomatoes

I'll be honest, I HATED tomatoes as a kid. It wasn't until the past few years I actually started eating them and still I prefer them cooked or canned over raw. Now, canned tomatoes are actually a staple in my house. I add them to soups, sauces, curries, and more.

Like many other fruits, tomatoes are a great source of antioxidants (specifically vitamins A and C), helping to fight free-radicals and reduce inflammation and prevent chronic disease. Tomatoes are also high in lycopene. Studies have shown many potential benefits of lycopene including: lowering LDL, antioxidant properties, acting as a potential blood thinner, as well as reducing the risk of coronary artery disease and heart disease.
 

 
 
 

P.S. I know you know blueberries are loaded with antioxidants too- great for your heart, inflammation, and more. Check out my yummy Wild Blue Raz Smoothie Bowl recipe here.

What is 'Healthy'?

 
(This is the first pic that showed up when I typed 'healthy' into the stock photos site - I thought it was general, but fitting. Happiness can play a role in your healthy too, can't it?)

(This is the first pic that showed up when I typed 'healthy' into the stock photos site - I thought it was general, but fitting. Happiness can play a role in your healthy too, can't it?)

 

 

Everyone seems to have a different definition of 'healthy.' Which I think is great. There is no one definition and it is totally personal to your beliefs, health needs, lifestyle, and more. 

My healthy is a lot of different things. It means having the energy to do the things I love; being mindful and doing my best to listen to my hunger and fullness cues; choosing foods that make my body feel good most often; including lots of veggies; getting a good night's sleep on most nights; being active but choosing the types of activities I enjoy; being flexible around food and not having restrictions or labeling foods as 'good' or 'bad'; allowing myself to have chocolate or cookies or beer or fries if I want to.

I'm sure most people I see at my local co-op would include  'local' and 'organic' in their definition, while some of my patients at the hospital may include low saturated fat and sodium, and those with celiac may include gluten-free in their definition. I think this is great, and goes to show that there is no one perfect 'diet' or way of eating. Each person is unique and so are their health and nutrition needs.

 

 

You may or may not know that many of the food claims we read on food packages are regulated and defined by the FDA or USDA ('low-sodium', 'good source of', 'light' or 'lite', 'natural', 'organic', etc.)

In 2015, KIND bars were called out for labeling their bars as 'healthy.' Although they're made up of most poly and monounsaturated fats, the total fat content in the bars exceeded the amount allowed by the government's definition.

'Healthy' was originally defined back in the 90s when we all feared fat. Now that we know how essential fat is to our brain and body functions, and that different types of fat act differently in the body, we're taking another look at the word (20 years later!).

 

So, my question for you is...

How do you define 'healthy'? What does 'healthy' mean to you?

Is it based on certain nutrients or food groups? Does it have rules and regulations? Does it include exercise, movement, a good night's sleep? Is it your relationship with food? Let me know!

 

(btw...healthy can now be used on food labels if the fat content is primarily composed of mono and polyunsaturated fats or if the product contains at least 10% of the recommended daily value of either potassium or vitamin D)