In order to eat a heart healthy diet, keep cholesterol levels in check and maintain a healthy weight, we need to eat enough fresh vegetables, fresh fruits and water. The reason for giving these foods special emphasis has to do with the widespread shifts in eating that have happened in recent decades. As a society, we eat too many highly processed foods, including sweetened drinks and this can cause a lot of health problems.
Consuming enough water and plants may well be the most important thing we can do to improve our heart health. Research has repeatedly shown that adequate fruit and vegetable consumption can improve our health and the health of our families.1-3 Michael Pollan, a highly respected journalist and professor of nutrition science at the University of California at Berkeley, simplified this advice in his seven-word description of what we should be eating to optimize our health:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
This advice is not meant to suggest that we should live on fruits, vegetables and water alone. It is important to consume a variety of other foods, including those that provide adequate amounts of three macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
Heart Healthy Carbohydrates
The category of foods called carbohydrates has attracted a lot of attention in recent years. It’s important to remember that not all carbohydrates are created equal, especially when it comes to our health. (Wheatbran, bananas and rolled oats fall into the category of carbohydrates, but so do Skittles, Wonderbread and Jelly Beans!) Obviously, there is wide variation when it comes to the health implications of foods within this category. In general, the Western Diet contains far too many highly processed, refined carbohydrates (or simple carbs) that are very high in sugar and lack dietary fiber. Complex carbohydrates, especially those that are high in fiber, like quinoa or barley, are much better for supporting digestive health and even regulating cholesterol levels. Diets that try to dramatically limit carbohydrates and replace them with proteins and fats may not be the healthiest in the long run, as they tend to be low in fiber and lack the variation in nutrients that may be needed for general good health as well as a healthy heart.
Heart Healthy Proteins
Proteins can also vary greatly in terms of their quality and their implications for our health. The amino acids found in proteins are often thought of as “building blocks” but they also play a number of other important roles in our bodies. In general, people who consume a typical Western Diet may actually be consuming too much protein, especially in the form of red meats. Processed meats and those that are high in saturated fat – think hot dogs or fatty BBQ ribs – should be eaten less frequently (or not at all) if you’re focusing on protecting your health. Instead, consider choosing a succulent piece of grilled salmon or, better yet, a vegetarian source of protein like a hearty bean stew or lentil salad. Vegetarian sources of protein come with the added benefits of extra fiber and they’re almost always less expensive. Choosing protein sources wisely, for example by including more fish and more vegetarian sources of protein, can be an important part of a heart-healthy, cholesterol lowering diet.
Heart Healthy Fats
Fats in the human diet have probably been the most talked about category of foods – and, depending on the decade, it seems that we are either being advised to eliminate them or eat them with wild abandon! Again, the most sensible answer to the question: “Are fats healthy or unhealthy” is this: It depends. It depends on the quality of the fat and the amount you’re eating. Unsaturated, naturally occurring fats like those found in olive oil, fish, nuts and avocados can protect our health when they’re eaten in reasonable amounts. Saturated fats, like those found in red meat, can contribute to elevated cholesterol levels and should be minimized in the diet. Again, not all fats are created equal, so choose wisely and enjoy reasonable amounts of the foods that will protect your heart and your health.
By Maya Adam, MD, Adapted from Food, Love, Family, A Practical Guide to Child Nutrition
- Boeing H, Bechthold A, Bub A, et al. "Critical Review: Vegetables and Fruit in the Prevention of Chronic Diseases." European Journal of Nutrition. 2012;51(6):637–663.
- Ledoux T, Hingle M, Baranowski T. "Relationship of Fruit and Vegetable Intake with Adiposity: A Systematic Review." Obesity Reviews. 2011;12(5):e143–e150.
- Pearson N, Biddle SJ. "Sedentary Behavior and Dietary Intake in Children, Adolescents, and Adults: A Systematic Review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2011;41(2):178–188.