Make these better food choices for better heart health

Harvard Heart Letter

Photo: Thinkstock

Eat fish instead of meat two dinners each week. Substitute vegetables for meat another evening.

Simple substitutions yield big health dividends.

It's easier to follow a heart-healthy diet than you think. All it may take are some simple changes in your food choices.

For most of us, these changes are overdue, says Kathy McManus, director of the department of nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

"The typical American diet contains a large proportion of unhealthy fats, too few fruits and vegetables, too much sugar and sodium, and too little fiber," she says. "This contributes to risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity."

Even if you already knew that, you're probably reluctant to make wholesale changes in the way you eat. Thankfully, making your diet heart-healthier is not an either-or proposition. Small changes to the way you currently eat can make a big impact.

We asked Ms. McManus and Dr. Michelle Hauser, a certified chef, nutrition educator, and internal medicine fellow at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance, how they would tweak the typical American diet to be healthier for the heart. Their suggestions lower the amount of saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, sodium, and calories and raise the amount of fiber and nutrients.

Making these small changes in your diet will help keep your arteries flexible and lower your risk of developing fatty plaques that can lead to heart attack. Just keep in mind that moderation is the key, even when you make these healthier choices.

Breakfast: If you eat ...

Buttered toast or bagel with cream cheese

Try: Whole-grain or sprouted-grain bread with almond butter or an olive oil- or yogurt-based spread. Why: Increases fiber and protein; reduces unhealthy fats and calories.

Refined breakfast cereal with milk and sugar

Try: Whole-grain, low-sugar cereal mixed with nonfat Greek yogurt and fresh or frozen blueberries. Why: Reduces sugar, adds fiber and antioxidants, and is less likely to cause a blood sugar spike.

Eggs

Try: Scramble in leftover vegetables from last night's dinner or chopped fresh tomatoes and avocado. Why: Adds nutrients and fiber; tomatoes add antioxidants, which help prevent fatty plaques; avocados add monounsaturated fat, which helps the body absorb nutrients.

Lunch: If you eat ...

Salad with ranch or blue cheese dressing

Try: A vinaigrette dressing made with garlic, Dijon mustard, fresh herbs, 1?3 cup vinegar, 2?3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, pepper, and a dash of salt shaken together in a jar.
Why: Reduces sodium and unhealthy fats.

Tuna salad sandwich

Try: Leftover grilled salmon or water-based light (not white) canned tuna mixed with chopped celery, lemon juice, red onion, dill, pepper, and a dash of salt stuffed in a whole-wheat pita. Why: Reduces calories and unhealthy fats.

Cream of tomato soup

Try: Cold soup made with low-sodium vegetable juice, fresh vegetables, an onion, and a dash of Worcestershire sauce pureed in a food processor. Why: Reduces calories and unhealthy fats; adds nutrients and fiber.

Dinner: If you eat ...

Meat every night

Try: One meatless dinner and two grilled or baked fish dinners per week. Why: Reduces saturated fat and calories; fish adds omega-3 fatty acids, which may lower the risk of heart attack, stroke, and arrhythmias.

Pasta with meat and cheese

Try: Whole-wheat spaghetti topped with fresh tomatoes and herbs or extra-virgin olive oil, grilled shrimp, and a small amount of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Why: Reduces saturated fat; adds fiber and health-protecting phytonutrients; shrimp adds omega-3 fatty acids, which may lower the risk of heart attack, stroke, and arrhythmias.

White rice or potatoes

Photo: Thinkstock

Try couscous with veggies instead of white rice.

Try: Whole-wheat couscous, quinoa, or brown rice tossed with sauted onion and grilled or roasted vegetables. Why: Reduces refined carbohydrates; adds fiber and nutrients.

Beverages: If you drink ...

Sugar-sweetened beverages

Try: Fruit juice cut with sparkling water, citrus-flavored sparkling water, or tap water with slices of orange, lemon, or cucumber. Why: Reduces calories and sugar.

Orange juice

Try: A whole orange. Why: Adds fiber; has less effect on raising blood sugar.

Snacks and treats: If you eat ...

Potato chips

Try: Nuts or whole-wheat crackers. Why: Nuts contain protein, fiber, healthy fats, and health-protecting phytonutrients; whole-wheat crackers contain fiber.

Store-bought cookies

Try: 1 ounce dark chocolate. Why: May lower blood pressure.

Ice cream

Try: Low-fat frozen Greek yogurt. Why: Same creamy taste with significantly less saturated fat and a fraction of the calories.

Fruit pie

Try: Fresh fruit topped with low-fat yogurt. Why: Lower in unhealthy fats, sugar, and calories; higher in fiber.