What is a Heart Healthy Diet?
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S., causing over 659,000 deaths in 2019. While there are never any guarantees when it comes to our health, there are still factors within your control, such as diet, that can help stack the deck in your favor.
Today, I will talk about the basics of a heart healthy diet that focuses on alleviating two contributing factors: high blood sugar and inflammation. If you have a family history of heart disease, have been diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes, or want to support your heart health, then this diet may be right for you.
What Are the Risk Factors of Heart Disease
Several risk factors contribute to heart disease, including smoking and physical activity. In addition to a heart-healthy diet, quitting smoking, and committing to moving your body for thirty minutes, five days a week, can help decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke.
When it comes to eating for heart health, two predominant risk factors are diabetes and inflammation in the body.
People with diabetes are three times more likely to be hospitalized for heart disease and contribute to 40% of heart attacks. If you have diabetes, your risk of a heart attack increases due to complications from hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). This condition can raise blood pressure, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol and narrow the arteries.
In terms of inflammation, the research looks at a certain marker in the body called C-Reactive Protein (CRP).
Researchers have shown that CRP strongly and independently predicts adverse cardiovascular events, such as a heart attack, stroke, and sudden cardiac death in people with and without a diagnosis of heart disease.
Based on the strong evidence connecting diabetes, high blood sugar, and inflammation with heart disease, a heart healthy diet should balance blood sugar and lower inflammation.
What is a Heart Healthy Diet?
Now that you know the goal of a heart healthy diet, it's time to look at how you can put that into practice. Fortunately, many foods and tips that balance blood sugar are also great for managing inflammation and vice versa.
Let's get started!
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Eating for Blood Sugar Balance
To manage your blood sugar, the first thing you will want to do is limit refined grains and sugars as much as possible. These foods are basically pure sugar, which causes elevated glucose levels and increases inflammation in the body. Keep these foods as treats:
- Baked and packaged foods made with white flour and sugar, such as bread, pastries, cakes, and cookies
- Soda and other sweetened drinks such as sweet tea, energy drinks, flavored water, sports drinks, and fancy coffees
- Chips, candy, milk chocolate, and other sweets
You will want to focus the bulk of your diet on foods that help stabilize your blood sugar. You can do this by combining lean protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats in your meals and snacks. Try to avoid eating pure carbohydrates on their own since they can cause a significant spike in blood sugar.
For meals, a good rule of thumb to follow is filling half of your plate with non-starchy fruits or vegetables, a quarter of your plate with your favorite protein source, and the last quarter of your plate with more starchy vegetables or carbohydrates, such as pasta or grains.
Great sources of complex carbohydrates include all vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts, and seeds.
For protein, try to include one serving with every meal from either plant or animal sources, depending on your preference. To easily measure a serving of protein, make it about the size of the palm of your hand. Remember that plant-based sources such as beans and lentils contain higher amounts of carbohydrates, so you may want to add some nuts or seeds to balance it out.
Finally, including healthy fats (we'll get into them in more detail below) in your meals can help you stay fuller for longer and provide some great health benefits. Aim to include about a thumb-sized serving of fat in your meals.
The suggestions above are an excellent foundation for lowering your risk of inflammation caused by diet. To go even further, you will want to limit your intake of trans fats, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, and vegetable oils since they are high in omega-6 fats. These fats are classified as essential fatty acids because we can't make them in the body.
However, historically we would have consumed omega-6 fats in balance with another essential fatty acid called omega-3. Researchers estimate that ratio was about 4:1 of omega-6 to omega-3. Since vegetable oils are so cheap to produce, they are used in virtually all restaurants and packaged or fried foods. This usage has changed the ratio to about 20:1. When we eat omega-6 fats outside of a balanced ratio with omega-3 fats, they may increase the inflammatory pathways in the body.
Omega-3 fats can help to balance or lower inflammation. A quick and easy change you can make to your diet is to sub out vegetable oils for fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, organic butter, or ghee in cooking. Don't be afraid to incorporate these cooking oils into your diet in healthy amounts. While there has previously been a focus on saturated fats as a cause of heart disease, current research shows that the culprit is more likely to be refined sugars and carbohydrates.
Subbing out inflammatory vegetable oils in your cooking can make a big difference. Still, you may also want to include the following anti-inflammatory foods for an even more powerful effect:
- Omega-3 rich foods from salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, hemp hearts, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and algae
- Spices such as turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cayenne, and black pepper
- Green or matcha tea
- All vegetables and fruits, especially blueberries.
While there are no guarantees, eating foods that keep your blood sugar stable, eliminating hydrogenated and trans fats, limiting your intake of vegetable oils, and adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet can certainly help protect your heart for the long term.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Deaths and Mortality)
- Diabetes Canada (Diabetes in Canada)
- Science Direct (Dietary fats and cardiovascular disease: Putting together the pieces of a complicated puzzle)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Diabetes and Your Heart)
- Science Direct (C-reactive protein, inflammation and coronary heart disease)
- Diabetes.co.uk (Rediscovered study from 60s Minnesota shows up ‘heart healthy diet’ myth)
- Science Direct (The Evidence for Saturated Fat and for Sugar Related to Coronary Heart Disease)