A cardiologist once told me a curious thing: that nothing in the world would make her happier than going out of business. According to her, ninety percent of the people who consult her with life-threatening conditions should never have been there in the first place, but pushed their bodies into that state simply through poor lifestyle choices. We all know that heart disease is one of the biggest killers in the developed world, so why do people keep doing this?
Eating the food we like is such an ingrained habit, it’s almost a part of our identity. From waking up to our favorite breakfast to celebrating with friends and family, to winding down with a snack after a long day: familiar, comfortable food makes us feel better.
Changing these habits can be difficult, but, particularly as we get older, living on a diet of nothing but fried chicken and soda is not really sustainable. It directly affects not only how long you can expect to live, but how fully you can enjoy those years. Putting off the decision to embrace a healthy diet until you’re actually suffering the symptoms of heart disease is like waiting for your car to break down before checking the oil.
While few people will be able to change their entire lifestyle in one week, there are plenty of changes you can make in your diet, gradually, that will cause a definite improvement in your long-term cardiac health. The best strategy is just to start making these changes today and keep going until you realize that healthy food can taste good, too.
No Time Like the Present
Here are a few tips you can start implementing right now to put yourself on the road to eating more healthily:
Count Calories (or at Least be Aware of Them)
How much food energy you need to take in depends on your age and how much physical activity you engage in, but eating more than that amount is never a good idea. Just consuming fewer calories are perhaps the simplest, easiest step on the road to wellness, and doesn’t necessarily imply eating less or feeling hungry all the time.
Try substituting popcorn for a deep-fried snack, or serve dinner with stir-fried vegetables instead of a side dish packed with starch, like potatoes or rice. The taste can be as good or better than what you usually put into your body, and you’ll feel just as full afterward. You’ll also be consuming more nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, without stuffing yourself with carbohydrates you don’t even need.
Learn to Cook
Restaurants and food factories often take the easy route to making their food more appetizing: simply adding heaps of fat, salt, sugar and nastier chemicals. Preparing your own food from fresh ingredients is not very difficult and allows you to control exactly what enters your body.
If you are truly not at home in the kitchen, starting small will help you gain experience and confidence. Anyone can toss a salad or cook a simple stew; the time taken will be shorter and the results better than you probably fear. As an additional benefit, you will see your food bills shrink dramatically.
Many home cooks have hectic lifestyles. Apart from learning to cook some delicious recipes that can be ready in 10 minutes or less, many choose to make a large quantity of some dishes when they have the time and freeze in portion-sized packages.
Learn to Season
Introducing more vegetables into your diet may seem like an unpleasant chore, but only until you understand how to serve them. Try eating them raw, or sprinkle lemon juice and sesame seeds over them. The golden rule is to taste everything until you are satisfied, instead of blindly following the recipe and hoping for the best.
Less Sodium, More Potassium
Snacks such as salted nuts and potato chips are especially bad in this regard. Biologically, your body requires virtually no sodium whatsoever so a single 100 calorie snack can contain many, many times the salt you need. In particular, this drives up your blood pressure needlessly.
How much salt a person likes is largely an acquired taste. Try eating a dish with much less salt than you would usually add, as an experiment. You’ll probably find that the first mouthful will taste bad, the second only bland, the third a lot like you remember, and after that,you’ll enjoy it just as much as you normally do.
Sea salt or rock salt tastes much saltier than table salt, allowing you to use less. Using herbs, spices, and other natural seasonings will intensify tastes and flavors without needing as much salt.
Potassium and sodium are chemically similar, so eating foods high in potassium can help control your sodium levels. Spinach, bananas, and avocados are all good sources of potassium.
Choose Fewer, Healthier Snacks
A big part of cardiovascular health involves maintaining a healthy weight, and a lot of people fail at this through snacking compulsively. Eating low-G.I. Meals containing whole foods will help you feel less hungry during the day while choosing fruit or a granola bar instead of a doughnut will satisfy your craving without piling on the calories.
Some Foods You Will Learn to Love
Instead of reflexively telling yourself: “I don’t like fruit/fish/vegetables,” simply put it in your mouth and taste it for what it is. Sure, asparagus doesn’t taste like cookies, but it isn’t trying to. Appreciating its unique, vibrant flavor costs nothing and you can still have a cookie afterward.
Whether you plan every meal in advance or not, aim for variety. If you only ever eat one thing, even if it’s a healthy thing, you’ll end up being malnourished.
Fruit is a wonderful source of fiber, which helps your body dispose of toxins. They’re also great for those of us with a sweet tooth while providing several nutrients your body needs to function effectively.
Any kind of berries is great for heart health as they contain phytonutrients which support your heart and antioxidants that help relax your blood vessels. They’re also delicious and easy to scatter over cereal or oatmeal in the morning.
Oranges and other citrus fruits, papayas and melons are good sources of beta-carotene, potassium, and magnesium, all of which are important. Simply eat a slice or two after dinner every evening, or if you’re feeling creative, use them as the main ingredient in a satisfying yet low-calorie dessert.
Avocados are not only versatile, the wide range of nutrients (including valuable monounsaturated fats) they provide make it worthwhile eating a portion every day.
A diet based mostly on red meat is a cardiologist’s worst nightmare. An excessive amount of animal fat is certainly not good for you, so if you choose to eat red meat, try to select the leanest cuts available. If you go with chicken or pork instead, remove the skin or fat for the same reason.
Fish is an excellent source of protein, while “oily” fish such as sardines, mackerel, salmon and tuna also contain high levels of omega 3, aiding in controlling your cholesterol. Experts recommend eating a portion of these kinds of fish twice a week.
Nuts and seeds (flax, pumpkin, sunflower, etc.) are great as a snack or as part of a dessert. They will stop you from feeling peckish while providing some heart-friendly nutrients.
Beans and other legumes, once you learn how to cook with them, are a great cholesterol-free source of protein that’s also packed with fiber, B vitamins and plenty of things your body needs. Try mixing boiled lentils and crunchy vegetables for a salad at your next meal to see how easy this is.
Soy products, in particular, can reduce blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol. If you can’t stand normal tofu, try the marinated kind, soy milk or plain boiled green soybeans for the same results.
Grains and Starches
Oatmeal is considered a superstar health food, especially for its ability to absorb cholesterol in the digestive tract and thus preventing it from ever reaching your bloodstream. It’s also dirt cheap and easy to prepare. Make it more interesting by serving it with fruit, cinnamon or nuts instead of adding unhealthy amounts of sugar.
In general, whole grains are far healthier than refined products. Try brown rice or wholewheat pasta for a change, it’s better for you and you just might like it.
You’re well on your way to a healthy diet if your dinner plate contains red, yellow and green vegetables. Green vegetables, especially broccoli, spinach, and kale are high in carotenoids, antioxidants which help to remove harmful chemicals from your body. Asparagus, aside from being simply delicious, is one of the most nutritious, least caloric vegetables on the planet.
Tomatoes yield high levels of vitamin C, potassium, alpha and beta carotene and especially the antioxidant lycopene. Lypocene keeps arteries clear, and help lowers bad cholesterol.
Oils and fats do indeed makeup part of a healthy diet, but all of them aren’t equally good for you. Read the nutritional information on the label: saturated fats, and especially trans fats, are to be avoided whenever possible. Processed foods such as mayonnaise and margarine are especially bad sources of these and should be avoided whenever possible.
Most vegetable oils, however, and extra virgin olive oil, in particular, contain high levels of unsaturated fats, which are high in calories but won’t push your cholesterol through the roof.
A glass of red wine with dinner is actually good for your cardiovascular system, helping to maintain the balance between good and bad cholesterol in your body (obviously, five glasses of wine isn’t five times as healthy!).
Cacao helps significantly in reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients who suffer from high blood pressure. To benefit from this, choose dark chocolate containing at least 70% cacao – milk chocolate won’t help.
Green tea is easy to prepare and sip while you are working, watching television or whatever. It has a gentle, pleasant taste, and people who drink it regularly have been found to be a stunning 20% less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease or strokes. Similar benefits result from mild levels of coffee drinking, although scientists aren’t sure how this works.
The Never-Eat List
Aside from smoking or alcohol abuse, the worst thing for your heart is trans-saturated fats. Typically, these substances are formed when oils are processed at high temperatures, and anyone who cares about his health will steer clear. Margarine and most store-bought mayonnaise have no part in a healthy diet, while dishes like deep-fried fish or chicken should occasionally be eaten at most. Meat (especially red meat) broiled at high temperatures are also a source of trans fats as well as carcinogens.
Bacon and other processed meats are a favorite for many of us, but you should be aware of how much sodium, trans fat and preservatives they typically contain. If you can’t bear the thought of giving it up completely, try to use it only in tiny quantities, like adding a little flavor to salads or pasta sauces.
Excessive sugar is never a good idea. Artificial soda drinks are the worst offenders, but even something like packaged fruit juice can contain ridiculous amounts of added sugar. Not only can this lead to skin problems and weight gain, but it plays merry hell with your insulin levels. Other problem foods include sugary cereals and packaged baked goods.
Stick With It
More than anything, embracing a heart-healthy diet means changing your habits and then maintaining this new lifestyle. By all means, indulge yourself with the occasional treat, but choosing the healthful option six days out of seven will automatically lower your cholesterol and blood pressure while leaving you feeling more energized.
Embracing a better diet is not only good for your heart but also your skin, brain, and every other organ. It takes more work than swallowing a pill or ten, but nutritional supplements and blood pressure pills do not offer anything like the same benefits and may even produce side effects.