It’s summertime. The season of warm temperatures, beach vacations and backyard barbeques. But before you load up that plate with a big greasy burger and a thick scoop of potato salad, take a minute to think about your heart because what you eat has a direct impact on your heart health.
“Nutrition is probably the most powerful thing you can do to prevent and treat coronary heart disease,” Sonya Angelone, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Yahoo Life. “There’s a lot of good research that says if you eat in a certain way that you can significantly decrease your risk for heart attack.”
Fatty, high cholesterol foods create a deadly buildup of plaque inside your arteries. The body tries to fight off this plaque with inflammation. Over time, this chronic inflammation can cause those pieces of plaque to rupture, get stuck in your blood vessels and eventually stop the flow of blood. Here’s the good news: You can help prevent all of this from happening by watching what you eat.
And it’s never too early to start eating a healthier diet. “Heart disease is a disease that really starts in childhood,” Christine Rosenbloom, a professor emerita of nutrition at Georgia State University, tells Yahoo Life. “You may start to have that buildup of junk or plaque in your arteries through your teenage years and in your young adult years.” But Rosenbloom says that even those with a family history of heart disease can often override or reverse those genetics simply by eating more heart healthy foods.
So where do you start? First of all, you don’t have to throw out everything in your kitchen, but it’s a good idea to take a look at your overall eating habits. Rosenbloom says making small and manageable changes will lead to more success in the long run. “You really want to have it as a dietary pattern,” Rosenbloom says. “Not any one food is going to protect you, so you have to put that in context of your whole diet.”
And you don’t have to break the bank either. “You do not have to buy organic or non-GMO or gluten-free to be heart healthy,” Rosenbloom adds. “Just find things that you like and start to incorporate them into your diet.”
Try these three easy, expert-recommended ways to eat heart smart:
#1 Eat more plants
Some of the easiest and most affordable items to add to your menu are fruits and vegetables. “Plants have amazing health benefits,” Dr. Taz Bhatia, a board-certified physician specializing in immune support and wellness, tells Yahoo Life. They contain antioxidants, such as vitamins A, B and C, which help keep your arteries free of plaque buildup.
Plaque is formed when cholesterol “gets super sticky and then attaches to the sides of our blood vessels, increasing our risk for heart disease,” explains Bhatia. “The antioxidants come in and they prevent that whole process from happening, keeping the blood vessels nice and open and preventing that plaque from forming.”
Bhatia suggests aiming for a rainbow of produce on your plate to get the most benefit. “Beets, for example, are high in folate and vitamin C,” she says. “Spinach and kale have A and C in them as well. And then our carrots have beta carotene, and they have lots of vitamin A, all of which help protect the heart.”
While you’re adding more colorful vegetables and fruits to your plate, try swapping out your beef or poultry with a couple of servings of fish or seafood. “Just two to three servings of fish a week reduces the risk from all chronic diseases, but also heart disease, by about 20 percent,” says Rosenbloom. “Fish has healthy omega 3’s, and it’s a very lean source of protein.”
Another good option: beans. Whether it’s dried lentils or canned peas, beans are one of the most affordable sources of potassium and fiber — both of which help lower your blood pressure. “Blood pressure is when the blood vessels of the heart start to tighten up and thicken up, really making it tough for the heart to get the blood and the oxygen it needs to do its job,” Bhatia explains. “And we know that high blood pressure is one of the greatest risk factors for heart disease.”
#2 Switch up your salt
“I know how hard this is, but kicking table salt is one of the keys to preventing heart disease,” says Bhatia. The popular seasoning actually constricts your blood vessels and in turn, decreases the amount of blood and oxygen that gets to your heart. But it’s not just the salt shaker sitting on your table that’s the problem — the biggest sodium threats are found in processed foods such as breads, pizzas and fast food sandwiches. Some of these foods contain more than 100 percent of the 2,300 milligrams of sodium that’s recommended per day.
“When we lower salt, we actually help the blood vessels to relax,” says Bhatia. It also increases blood flow coming into the heart and brings overall blood pressure down, according to Bhatia. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up salt entirely. Bhatia suggests using “high quality salt” that has less sodium than table salt, such as pink Himalayan salt or Celtic sea salt.
#3 Have some dark chocolate
To ease the pain of reducing your intake of some of your favorite processed foods, treat yourself to some dark chocolate. Varieties with at least 70 percent cacao help your body release nitric oxide. This powerful compound actually relaxes blood vessels and keeps them flexible. Just be sure you check the label to see if the chocolate has been processed with alkali. This so-called “Dutch process” destroys the chocolate’s healthy plant compounds that help reduce inflammation.
As you make these changes to your eating habits, remember to go easy on yourself. “You don’t have to have a perfect diet — it’s the sum of all of the parts,” Angelone says, adding: “It’s ok to enjoy your food.”
Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove
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