Connie Grantham, RN, BSN, FNLA
Jackson Heart Clinic, P.A.

The words “heart-healthy diet” often conjure up thoughts of boring, tasteless food. There is an almost automatic response to these words that invoke thoughts of what must be eliminated in order to become healthy. Thoughts like, “I will have to give up (blank) and I can never have (blank) again.” By the time we inventory all that must be eliminated, we conclude that our diet will consist primarily of chicken and green beans day in and day out. For sure, boring and tasteless—and oh, how we resist!

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the opposite in thinking should occur. Rather than trying to narrow our food world (down to chicken and green beans) to become healthy, we need to reverse our thinking and work to broaden our food horizons. Consider that there is a world of flavor and food out there that we may like, and that might even be considered healthy, but we have never experienced.

The saying “variety is the spice of life” certainly applies to what we eat. It takes many different foods every day to keep our bodies and our hearts healthy. The fact is the more varied our diet, the healthier we will become. Food, after all, is what fuels us. It contains the chemicals that our cells need to function properly. Depending on what we consistently put in, these chemicals will either fight or fuel disease.

One way to keep variety in our diet is to tune in to Mother Nature. Look to the garden and the season of the year to determine what’s for dinner. For instance, during the winter the garden delivers dark, leafy greens, cabbages, root vegetable, and citrus fruits. These are the foods we should focus our winter eating around. Rather than plan the meal around the meat, let the vegetable inspire the meal. Think about what meat might complement the vegetable. Then simply change the focus with the seasons. In the course of a year, many delicious and new foods will be enjoyed. Try it. It’s fun!

That said, here are the principles of a heart-healthy diet:

 • Eat grains that are whole and fewer refined grains. Choose cereals with 5 grams of fiber or more per serving. Oats are good for heart health because they are a good source of soluble fiber. Include them regularly. Choose brown rice or whole wheat bread over white. Limit grain portions to one-fourth of the plate.

• Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day. Hold the white potatoes. A healthy goal is 5 vegetables and 2 fruits every day. Cover half your plate with mostly non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, squash, etc.

• Limit the amount of dietary cholesterol in your diet. Cholesterol is found only in foods that originate from animals. Choose healthier lean protein sources including fish, chicken, nuts, and beans. Limit red meat, pork, and cheese. Try to eat a meal which includes fish at least twice per week.

• Substitute healthy plant fats for unhealthy animal fats. Use all fats in small amounts because the calorie content is high. Avoid fried foods. Choose unsaturated fats like olive oil, canola oil, nuts, avocado, and natural peanut butter in small amounts. Choose omega-3 fats found in cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel.

• Limit the amount of sodium/salt to <1500 mg per day. Eighty percent of the sodium we consume comes from packaged and already-made foods. Strive to put more real/unpackaged food into your diet. Think: apple, carrot, etc. Cook at home more and use fresh ingredients. Limit eating out to 1-2 times per week.

Finally, strive for a healthy body weight. If you are overweight, try to reduce your calories by paying close attention to portion sizes and limiting high-calorie, high-sugar foods. Limit desserts to once a week. Avoid regular sweet drinks such as sodas and sweet tea. Measure what you eat to become familiar with serving sizes. Keeping a food journal is often a good tool to help identify problem areas and to set goals.

Heart-healthy eating is delicious and satisfying. Attitude is everything so be adventurous, broaden your food horizons—and above all else make it fun!