The Heart-Healthy Kitchen

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Heart disease is the number one killer disease in America. Up to half of those deaths could be prevented with changes in lifestyle, with diet leading the troops. Studies show that after one month of eating healthfully, people lower their cholesterol by 29%, which is what you would expect from taking statin medications! While the statin medications come with a load of potential side effects, from nausea and headaches to liver failure, the only side effect of eating a heart-healthy diet is you may lose a few pounds and live longer. February is American Heart Month. Now is the time to stock the kitchen with heart-healthy fare.

The first rule for stocking a heart-healthy kitchen is that fruits and vegetables should make up half of your kitchen stash. You need 8+ servings of colorful fruits and vegetables every day, which supply fiber to lower cholesterol, vitamins to lower a chemical in the blood called homocysteine, and antioxidants to protect your arteries from damage associated with atherosclerosis. Few topics in nutrition are black and white, but thousands of studies spanning decades of research repeatedly and consistently show that the more produce people consume, the lower their risk for all age-related diseases, including heart disease. Load the produce bin with the colorful ones, since the antioxidants are in the pigment…the more pigment, the more antioxidants. Great examples include spinach, sweet potatoes, oranges, bagged romaine lettuce, broccoli, etc. Stock produce in different stages of ripeness so they are ready when you are. Don’t forget the garlic and lemon, two heart-healthy ingredients that give great flavor to your vegetables.

Does being heart healthy mean cutting out meat? Not at all, but it does mean choosing the right cuts and keeping the portions small. That’s because the #2 rule in stocking for a healthy heart is to cut back on the “bad” fats (the saturated fats that are in red meat and fatty dairy products) and increase the “good” fats (the omega-3s and monounsaturates)Focus on extra-lean meats low in saturated fats and high in healthy omega-3 fats, such as skinned chicken breast, ground turkey breast, red meat with 7% or less fat by weight, and salmon. The American Heart Association recommends at least 2 servings a week of omega-3 rich seafood to prevent irregular heartbeat (arrhythmias), blood clots, clogged arteries, and high triglyceride levels. The omega-3s also might help reduce inflammation in blood vessels associated with atherosclerosis. If you can’t afford or don’t like fish, are vegetarian, or are concerned about pesticides and mercury in fish, look for foods that are fortified with a plant-based, contaminant-free DHA, such as milk, yogurt,  juices, etc. Aim for at least 200 milligrams of DHA a day.

In the cupboards, stock foods with these guidelines in mind: 1) Look for key packaging clues, such as the word “healthy” in the title of a food, such as Healthy Request or Healthy Choice items, including soups and frozen entrees. Also look for foods that have the American Heart Association’s heart-check mark. 2) Choose foods that have no more than 1 gram of saturated fat for every 100 calories and little or no added sugar. 3) Focus on foods that are as close to their original source as possible, such as nuts and nut butters, olive oil, olive oil spray, canned tomatoes, canned beans, salsa and instant brown rice. Don’t forget old fashioned oatmeal! This grain contains soluble fiber that lowers blood cholesterol levels. Oats also help maintain insulin levels and help regulate blood pressure, both of which are important for cardiovascular health.

Elizabeth Somer, M. A., R.D.

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