February is American Heart Health Month so nothing is more important than to discuss nutrition. What to eat and what not to eat for a healthy heart. This is often a confusing subject for many people, complicated by a plethora of contradicting diet books/plans, all claiming to be heart healthy. I personally don’t like the word “diet” because it implies a temporary change in how you eat only to resume prior habits. What I think is important is to have a nutritional way of life that becomes your new habit.
As a cardiologist, I have used many tools including medications and interventional cardiac procedures to “treat” my patients. However, without the patients taking the necessary lifestyle changes, including proper nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation, and stress management, all I have done is put a band-aid on their disease. It’s time to focus more on prevention and to empower patients to heal themselves because heart disease is largely preventable.
I recently read “Eat to Live” written by Dr. Joel Fuhrman and I strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting to be healthy. Dr. Fuhrman is a board-certified family physician and nutritional researcher. While it technically is a weight loss book (obesity being a major risk factor for heart disease), I think it is valuable for everyone. The basic concept is that
Health = Nutrients/Calories
Your health is predicted by the amount and quality of nutrient intake (vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals) in your caloric intake (carbohydrates, fats, and protein). The higher the ratio, the healthier you are. This simple approach to eating not only results in significant, sustainable weight loss but also helps to PREVENT heart disease and cancer.
Our Modern American Diet is MAD. Over 90 percent of calories consumed by Americans comes from refined foods or animal products, both of which are essentially devoid of nutrients.
“Refined” foods are foods that have been processed or altered, such as grains, sugar, and oils, so that they are no longer in their natural state. While words such as refined or enriched may sound good, it is quite the opposite.
- Limit (if overweight, Avoid) Refined Carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, cold cereals, muffins, bagels – you get the point
- Limit sugar
- Limit processed foods (because they are refined, contain sugar and are empty calories)
- Limit animal foods
Animal foods increase the risk, not only of heart disease but also many cancers. All animal products are low (or completely lacking) in the nutrients that protect us against heart disease and cancer – antioxidants, vitamins, fiber, and phytochemicals. The risk is linked to all animal foods, including lean meats and poultry and appears to be related to the animal protein as much as the animal fat.
So, what foods are nutrient dense and therefore heart healthy
- Green leafy vegetables – kale, chard, collard greens, spinach, arugula
- Other green vegetables – broccoli, asparagus, string beans, peas, Brussel sprouts
- Non-green vegetables – beets, eggplant, mushrooms, onions, radishes, bean sprouts, bell peppers, cauliflower, carrots
- Fresh Fruit– all berries, apples, bananas, peaches, pineapple, grapes, kiwi
- Beans – lentils, kidney, great northern, black, pinto, chickpeas, edamame
- Raw nuts and seeds – sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, flaxseeds, almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts
- Colorful starchy vegetables – sweet potatoes, squash, turnips
- Whole grains – oats, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, bulgur, millet, whole grain bread
As you can see, there’s a lot of good stuff here. Nutritional density is highest at the top and decreases going down the list. So when you’re thinking about what to eat, start at the top, make the greens the largest portion of your daily food consumption and then add the others.
Changing how we eat is not easy. Trust me, I understand (yesterday I had pasta and wine). Eating is emotional and social. But it is also the only way to real health. It is a choice we make for ourselves and our families. I suggest aiming to consume 60 percent of your calories from nutrient dense plant foods. This is 10 times what most Americans consume and will decrease your risk of heart disease (and cancer) significantly. Let’s get started and stay healthy.
“Let food be thy medicine” – Hippocrates
Millie Lee, MD