Cardiac Diet: The Ultimate Guide To Heart-Healthy Eating

Cardiac illness is the leading cause of death for both men and women according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in four Americans die from heart disease each year, per CDC statistics. The most common ailment is coronary artery disease, which occurs when the arteries that provide blood flow to the heart become narrow and brittle. In 2014 alone, coronary artery disease killed 365,000 people.

The good news is that "coronary artery disease is preventable," says Johnny Lee, M.D., president of New York Heart Associates. Risk factors for heart disease include smoking and family history, but diet also plays a huge role, particularly in determining the levels and types of fats (also called lipids) in our blood that may be damaging our arteries. That means smart choices at mealtimes can help our cardiovascular systems to run smoother and stronger, keeping the arteries clear and the heart healthy for lifelong wellness.

Foods To Avoid

The World Heart Federation identifies two types of fat in the blood that risk damaging the arteries: triglycerides, the most common type of fat in the body; and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which helps form cell membranes and hormones in the body. While naturally occurring and healthy in moderation, high levels of these fats can pose serious health risks by damaging the arteries and "increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke," the World Heart Federation says on its website.

To achieve and maintain heart-health, it is therefore essential to avoid foods that are high in these fats. Solid or saturated fats and oils such as butter, lard, and coconut oil, are best substituted for olive oil, soft margarine, and other unsaturated fats, according to WebMD's online guide to cholesterol management. Red meats, cured meats, and other high-fat animal proteins are another big source of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and should be switched out for leaner proteins such as skinless white-meat chicken or fish. As for dairy products, cardiologists recommend sticking to skimmed milk instead of cream, and low-fat yogurt instead of full-fat.

Salt is another factor to watch out for. While sodium is essential in small amounts, high levels of salt in the foods we eat can have severe effects on the cardiovascular system. "Because sodium attracts and holds water, your blood volume increases, which makes your heart work harder and increases pressure in your arteries," according to the Mayo Clinic. The biggest sources of sodium in our diets, the Mayo Clinic adds, are in processed and prepared foods such as cold cuts, cheese, and fast food.

Foods To Favor

But a cardiac-healthy diet isn't just about the foods you cut out. Happily, it's also about substituting those fatty, salty junk foods with meals that rich in high-density lipoprotein. HDL, the so-called "good" cholesterol reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease as it carries cholesterol away from your blood stream. Cutting out LDL cholesterol means doing away with greasy burgers and fries, but the upshot is embracing the delectable world of high-HDL foods such as salmon, nuts, and leafy greens.

"Some types of fats are healthier than others," says Walter Willett, M.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health. Along with olive oil, he recommends canola, corn and peanut oils as heart-healthy options for baking and cooking options. He also advocates a diet rich in almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pistachios, avocados, and fish - all excellent sources of cardiac-smart HDL and unsaturated fat. Eating unsaturated fat in place of refined grains and sugar often improves blood cholesterol profiles and lower triglycerides.

Along with lean proteins and unsaturated fats, fresh vegetables form the cornerstone of the cardiac diet. But which ones? According to the Cleveland Clinic, the leafier and greener the produce, the better. "Leafy green vegetables are so good for you it's staggering," the clinic's heart and vascular team writes on their website. Veggies such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage and bok choy are not only loaded with vitamins, but according to the clinic they also "are rich in fiber, which lowers cholesterol and reduces your risk of heart disease."

On her blog, nutritionist and NBC Today health-expert Joy Bauer notes that the potassium in leafy greens is helpful in managing blood-pressure levels - another bonus for long-term heart-health. Meanwhile, Bauer writes, greens such as collards and Swiss chard that are high in beta-carotene "contribute to the growth and repair of the body's tissues" - including those all-important cardiac arteries. "As a general rule," Bauer writes, "you should aim to eat at least five servings of vegetables daily."

Dark leafy greens are also an excellent source of folate, along with fruits, legumes, seafood, and certain grains. Folate is a type of B-vitamin that may help guard against cardiovascular disease and stroke, in part by maintaining elasticity in the arteries. Foods that are highest in folate include spinach, yeast, and asparagus.

Certain fruits are also a terrific source of HDL cholesterol. Berries in particular are filled with artery-cleansing lipids and nutritional fibers, according to a 2010 study published by the Oxford University Press's Nutrition Reviews. The study says cranberries, blueberries, and strawberries - either fresh, juiced, or freeze-dried - all appear to deliver "significant improvements" in lowering bad cholesterol and improving overall heart-health.

It's Never Too Late

No matter what stage you are in life, or how poor your nutrition has been in the past, there's still time to turn it around. Abstaining from tobacco and alcohol, while maintaining an active lifestyle with regular exercise, will go a long way to supplementing the cardiac diet for heart-health at any age.

Even if one hasn't made healthy eating a priority in one's youth, lifestyle changes in middle-age can still have a big impact in preserving long-term cardiovascular health. If heart health hasn't been a priority, don't worry, healthy choices you make now can strengthen your heart for the long haul so it's never too late.

In most cases, switching to the cardiac diet will result in moderate weight-loss. Cutting out so many unhealthy fats, processed salty foods, and other wasted calories is, after all, a great way to shed a few pounds! Sticking to foods such as green vegetables and lean proteins will also improve your energy levels and overall-being. But the main goal and the most lasting effect of the cardiac diet is a healthy heart for life. What's not to love?

Getting Started - Cardiac Diet Menu Tips

As stereotypes would have it, heart-healthy eating is synonymous with "bland". But don't think you need to resign yourself to the gastronomic doldrums of unseasoned fish and boiled vegetables day in and day out. These days, recipe books and magazines are filled with ideas to serve meals that are as nutritious as they are delicious, and grocery stores offer more access than ever to affordable, fresh ingredients.

The humorist Doug Larson once quipped that "Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon." But the truth is they can - and it doesn't require tons of salt, oil, or cheese to make healthy vegetables smell and taste mouth-wateringly delicious. Next time you're steaming some broccoli, for instance, use a cube or two of low-sodium vegetable stock in the water. This will infuse the vegetables with natural savory flavor, without the need to add a ton of salt.

Another terrific option for savory foods are Bragg's liquid aminos seasonings. These all-natural flavorings are an excellent alternative to soy sauce, beef stock, and other high-salt staples found in so many popular dishes. Next time you're preparing soup, or a sauce to go over fish, chicken, vegetables or rice, try a couple drops of liquid aminos before adding salt - you might find you don't need any at all! The Bragg products are available at any health-food store and most groceries.

Registered dietitian Ellie Krieger, who hosts the Food Network's "Healthy Appetite" show, writes on her website that "the idea that you have to choose between pleasure and wellness is untrue." I couldn't agree more. Amateur home cooks and seasoned chefs alike can enjoy the creative challenge of coming up with cardiac-friendly dishes that are as tasty as they are heart-smart. With that in mind, here's a few tips and ideas for every meal of the day to get you started!


Egg-White Omelettes

Egg whites are a wonderful source of lean protein, folate, and other essential nutrients. Cholesterol-rich egg yolks might not be as harmful as previously thought, but there's no need to risk it with a well-made egg-white omelette.

Using the whites of two eggs per serving, whisk lightly and season with Bragg's liquid aminos instead of salt. Add in finely chopped vegetables of your choice - we love steamed broccoli and kale in our egg-white omelettes - as well as some chopped onion and black pepper for flavor. Cook on low heat for 20 minutes until the egg-whites are cooked through, and serve while hot.

Fruit, Granola, and Yogurt Parfait

Nonfat or low-fat yogurt is an excellent source of protein, and a heart-healthy way to get a full dose of calcium in your diet. There are many varieties available, but in general go for the yogurt products that have been through minimal processing. Organic and raw yogurts are wonderful if they come from a dairy you trust, since it means there will be no additives or chemicals in the yogurt.

Top each serving of yogurt with a handful of fresh blueberries or strawberries, rinsed and patted dry, to get a full dose of their artery-cleansing properties. Add a sprinkle of whole-grain granola with nuts, and you've got a fully balanced breakfast parfait that's sure to keep your tastebuds and your cardiologist happy!


Superfood Salads

Making your own salad for lunch is fast and easy. Best of all, the possibilities for healthy and delicious ingredients are literally endless. My favorite is to use rinsed and chopped kale, or some other dark-green leafy vegetable, and include steamed and chopped Brussels sprouts in the mix.

Add in chopped walnuts, dried cranberries, and slices of avocado for fun, healthy flavor in this sensible salad. For extra protein, grilled skinless white-meat chicken is a great choice, or consider going meat-free with steamed lentils or garbanzo beans. Dress with simple vinaigrette made from olive oil and Balsamic vinegar, and eat up!

Open-Faced Avocado Delight

Forget sandwiches - all that bread is so heavy, and store-bought slices usually pack a ton of sodium and unsaturated oils and fats. Instead, take a ripe avocado, slice it in half, remove the pit, and fill the insides with lean proteins such as tuna fish (if canned, make sure it was canned in water and not oil).

Season this open-faced avocado lunch with chopped black olives, lettuce, and tomato, and eat with your hands or a knife and fork. The olives should add enough flavor that you don't need to add any salt. It's really hard to go wrong with this nifty lunch-time trick, and an avocado a day will help keep cardiac disease away!


Paprika Roasted Salmon

If you find a good cut of fresh salmon with the skin on, snap it up and take it straight home to prepare the ultimate heart-healthy feast. Salmon meat and skin alike are chock-full of folates and good HDL cholesterol.

The best part is that if you keep the skin on while roasting, you won't need to add a drop of oil because the naturally occurring fish oils will get the texture and consistency just right. Season your fish with a sprinkle of paprika, and serve with a side of steamed mustard or collard greens.

Chicken Stir-Fry

If you thought all fried foods were off-limits on the cardiac diet, think again. This classic chicken and rice dish can easily be prepared using olive oil instead of butter or lard, and comes out every bit as delicious. To prepare, simply combine cooked whole-grain rice in a large skillet with chopped scallions, diced asparagus, a tablespoon of olive oil, and cubed white-meat skinless chicken.

Cook on low-to-medium heat until the chicken pieces are cooked through and the vegetables are soft. Add a few drops of Bragg's liquid aminos for flavor, as needed, and enjoy!

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