We get so many conflicting messages about what foods are best for us. We know that certain things are perhaps dangerous for our hearts, but maybe we don't know to what extent. Most importantly, we need to focus on preventative foods we can eat to keep our hearts healthy.
Prevention comes down to diet, exercise, and other lifestyle choices. We’ve always thought that getting the basics down is essential for success: That means eating a diet of natural foods focusing on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and lean protein. Research shows that 80% of the time, heart disease is preventable. When we get sick, we tend to focus on medications and procedures as the answer. Perhaps, we should shift from a treatment-driven paradigm to a prevention-driven one so we can talk less about the side effects of medications and more about the best ways to diet and exercise, and to live our lives.
We already know some interesting things about how different people react to different diets. These are some tried-and-true ways to use personalized medicine to help you prevent heart disease.
Some people genetically have difficulty metabolizing carbohydrates. They’re more likely to become insulin resistant and, eventually, diabetic. If you already have blood sugar issues, the solution is simple: Cut out simple carbohydrates, starch, and sugar. They aren’t for you. You can probably tolerate nutrient-dense whole grains like oatmeal, but let the rest go. Your metabolism isn’t suited to a carb-centric diet. Instead, focus on lean proteins and lots of vegetables, and you’ll be much more likely to experience weight loss and improved blood sugar balance.
Fat is more likely the problem if you have a strong family history of heart disease. If you try a fad like the ketogenic diet and get most of your calories from animal fat, you may find that “out of nowhere,” your cholesterol shoots up into the 400s, your doctor says you need a prescription for statin drugs, and inflammation in your system is through the roof -- yet you have no idea how this happened. It may be that you are genetically less able to metabolize fats. This puts you at risk for heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. Which fats you eat matter. Follow a primarily vegetarian diet. Eat very lean protein (fish!) sparingly, get plenty of fiber, and only eat fats from plant foods.
Some people have celiac disease, a serious condition that requires eliminating gluten entirely for life. Others might not have celiac disease but do feel worse when they eat gluten. There are tests for celiac disease and nonceliac gluten sensitivity. If you test positive for either, a diet that’s free from gluten and full of nutrient-dense foods is essential for health, lowering inflammation and restoring likely nutrient deficiencies. Going gluten-free is certainly not necessarily a "healthy" option for all people, but is essential if you have issues metabolizing gluten.
Omega-3s are great for your heart health and are in foods you probably already enjoy, like salmon, soybeans, and walnuts. Others, like flaxseed, mackerel, and sardines, are also good sources of Omega-3s. In the past, I’ve talked a bit about the Mediterranean diet, which has tremendous benefits for heart health. It centers on many kinds of fish, leafy greens, very little red meat, and very few sweets. When I say diet, I want to clarify that the Mediterranean diet is not a temporary fix; it is a permanent way of life -- especially for people in the Mediterranean region. Once you shift to a Mediterranean diet, your body will feel the positive change and not want to return to your old ways.
The Mediterranean diet is not a low-fat diet, but its fat is good, heart-healthy monounsaturated fats rich in Omega-3. Getting Omega-3s through these sources also helps satisfy the cravings that you may have.
Meal Planning Can Help
We eat a lot throughout the day, often more than we need. Following the Mediterranean diet often can help with cravings and hunger and provide the right balance of nutrients. Ongoing unsatisfied cravings can take their toll on your heart health. To fight them, start the day with protein and whole grains with high fiber for breakfast. Proteins keep blood sugars steady, and whole grains keep you full. You’ll feel calmer, more stable, and not be Jonesing for sugar in the early afternoon – or even before lunch!
Giving up your sugar fix is one of the best things you can do for your heart health. Lunch can be a whole grain pita with hummus, arugula, an apple, a 3-bean salad with red beans, black beans, chickpeas, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The protein will fuel you, and the fat will keep those cravings at bay. Salmon and carrots or Bronzini with a Greek salad are great options for dinner. The Mediterranean diet doesn’t limit you. There are many creative options and easy prep combinations for those who prefer to grab and go, plus a wide range of inspiration for culinary masters. You can use meal planning to plan out any nutritional lifestyle.
Planning can also remove a major headache: I’m not a cook. In fact, I don’t particularly like cooking, but I can tell you that even if you don’t like cooking, you can eat well and choose heart-healthy foods. While the Mediterranean diet is predominantly fish, you can add low-fat meat from time to time. I suggest that is not a regular part of your diet, but is an occasional treat. Some meals you can enjoy on the Mediterranean diet include:
- Breakfast: Oatmeal with almonds and blueberries
- Lunch: Tuna, arugula salad with a lemon-dressed mustard green salad
- Snack: Apple wedges and almond butter
- Dinner Grilled shrimp and asparagus
What Does the Research Say?
A 2013 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine supports the idea that a Mediterranean diet is less restrictive and keeps your heart healthy. It reduced the incidence of major cardiovascular events among people in the study who were already at risk for heart disease.
It’s not a fad diet like so many get healthy quick schemes. Fad diets become fads because for some people (not all people), they work when “no other diet they were ever on before helped.” If a diet works, the dieter is more likely to keep going. And while the Mediterranean diet is not a fad diet, it is easy for people to follow and sustain over other lifestyle shifts and diets because it doesn’t feel as restrictive.
Cravings Aren’t Always What They Seem
Often it’s not the food you’re craving. Sometimes -- especially when we’re tired or stressed, we fall back on food to help make us feel better. But here are heart-healthy alternatives that can satisfy your cravings and keep you fueled.
Being aware is the first step, then try and see if you can find a better alternative. There are often healthier choices out there. It just takes a little bit of planning, and – more than anything – a true desire to become healthier.
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