Health & Wellness
Heart disease is the top cause of death for people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Following a healthy diet and eating habits is one of the best-proven ways to lower your risk of developing heart disease, says Sarah Sorensen, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute. For February’s American Heart Month, Sorensen offers an ABC breakdown of nutrition tips for those seeking to reduce their heart disease risk.
A: Avoid processed foods.
About 70% of our sodium intake comes from processed, prepackaged, and restaurant foods, according to the CDC. Sorensen says that sodium may increase blood pressure. Known as the “silent killer,” high blood pressure often has no symptoms but is nonetheless a significant risk factor for heart disease, she says. The American Heart Association reports that high blood pressure increases the heart's workload, causing the heart muscle to thicken, become stiffer, and function abnormally. Sorensen recommends looking for “unsalted” or “no salt added” labels at the grocery store and cooking meals at home that incorporate more plant foods from the produce section.
Processed foods contain excess sodium and often also carry excess oils and fats with minimal fiber and nutrients. Sorensen says excess oil and fats, especially saturated and trans fats, may elevate inflammatory levels in your body that accelerate plaque buildup inside blood vessels. Plaque buildup reduces blood flow, heightening the risk of heart attacks, heart failure, and other serious conditions.
A lack of fiber in processed foods also challenges your body in controlling blood sugar levels, Sorensen says. Over time, she says elevated blood sugar can damage blood vessels and nerves that control your heart.
B: Balance your plate.
Sorensen says dividing your plate into sections can help you plan out which healthy portions of each food group you can include in every meal.
For example, she recommends filling half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, such as leafy greens, carrots, and mushrooms. Next, fill one-quarter of the plate with complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes or whole-grain foods: brown rice, quinoa, and whole-grain bread or pasta. Finally, fill the last quarter of the plate with a lean protein like beans, hummus, or tempeh.
Divvying up food groups on your plate balances your intake of macronutrients, which Sorensen says regulate blood sugars and prevent damage to the inner cellular lining of your blood vessels. Sorensen says these foods also provide various micronutrients to avoid plaque buildup.
C: Consume breakfast frequently throughout the week.
Eating breakfast throughout the week lowers your risk of developing a range of risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high triglycerides, high LDL cholesterol, and low HDL cholesterol.
Sorensen says that skipping breakfast can increase these risk factors in several ways. First, not eating breakfast increases your likelihood of eating a higher intake of calories throughout the day, especially from added sugars. You may also be more prone to indulging in late-night dinners and consuming inadequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. Finally, she says skipping breakfast can minimize your energy to be physically active.
“Whether it's something you prepare in advance like overnight oats or chia pudding or something quick and easy day-of, like a tofu veggie scramble, eat your breakfast as often as you can without skipping,” Sorensen says.
Adopting or adjusting eating habits to be more heart-healthy may feel overwhelming, Sorensen says, but remembering these ABC tips and making minor adjustments over time eases the process.
“If you want to incorporate heart-healthy foods and eating habits into your lifestyle and don’t quite know where to begin, you can always start with these ABCs.”