How to switch to a manageable meal plan that can help lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes or stroke.
This article was updated on February 1, 2021.
This post is part of a mini blog series dedicated to bringing awareness about your heart health during the American Heart Association's national #HeartMonth. Miss the other stories? Catch up on 5 Eating Tips for a Healthy Heart, How to Know If You're Having a Heart Attack, How to Check Your Blood Pressure at Home and 10 Heart Tests Your Doctor Might Order and What They Mean.
With loads of trendy diets floating around, it's hard to keep track of which ones to follow. But Sue Ryskamp, a registered dietician at the Michigan Medicine Frankel Cardiovascular Center, says they're easy to narrow down once you realize most don't meet the American Heart Association's criteria for being heart healthy.
That's where the AHA's recommended Mediterranean diet comes in. It quickly gained popularity back in 2013 with a published study that included more than 7,000 people and showed a strong link between those eating habits and preventing cardiovascular events.
"It's scientifically based, where these other ones may work on a short term basis, but in reality they're stricter and harder to maintain," Ryskamp explains. "For instance, the keto diet may require close medical supervision and guidance, especially long term; you're going to need help managing it. Same for intermittent fasting. Does it work? Yes, but it's not for everyone."
And the benefits of a Mediterranean diet speak for itself: According to findings in the Journal of Nutrition, the diet has been shown to decrease your risk of heart disease by 31%, lower your risk of developing diabetes by 33% and lower your risk of a stroke by 20%.
But what exactly does a Mediterranean diet mean?
Well, for starters, it's not a diet, it's a meal style, explains Ryskamp.
"It's based on the traditional eating habits of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, where studies have shown these populations tend to live longer, healthier lives," says Ryskamp. "This can be seen especially in comparison to the standard American diet, becoming increasingly known as "SAD," which consists of a high intake of red meat, grains, dairy products, processed, pre-packaged and fried foods."
Although it varies from culture to culture, these groups seem to follow a more plant-based diet, incorporating lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, using olive oil as their primary fat source and consuming more eggs, fish and poultry rather than red meat, with fruit being a common dessert.
"Eating minimally processed foods is key here. You want fresh, whole foods that don't come in a box or a can," Ryskamp says.
Why it helps
Ryskamp says she's seen its positive health changes firsthand.
"I've had patients in their 60s with high cholesterol, and when given a combination of medication changes along with this diet, I've seen, within a month, numbers fall within a normal range," she says. "If you commit, you'll see results. You're going to show improvement not only in biomarkers, but in your overall health. And remember that you may not feel bad, but your blood work may suggest another story."
Ryskamp says research has found that more refined carbohydrates and sugar in your diet can cause an inflammatory response in the body, which not only leads to unhealthy spikes in blood sugar, insulin and triglycerides (all which affect your heart health), but can cause general internal inflammation, too. High sugar content can also lead to an irregular heartbeat.
And emphasizing a plant-based diet high in fats like avocados, olives, nuts and nut-based butters translates into eating fewer carbs.
"This combination plays out to be tried and true; we want a lower, more sustainable calorie intake, because obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke," says Ryskamp.
It also cuts down your sodium intake, which is commonly hidden in packaged foods. According to the AHA, you should steer clear of foods containing sodium and prepare most meals with little or no salt, focusing once again on the fresh versus processed approach.
Making the switch
So, how exactly do you get started and how drastic will the changes be?
First, Ryskamp recommends looking at your overall meal plan and slowly making changes over time.
"Tease out things that are doing more harm than good. Drinking soda and sugary beverages? Substitute them with sparkling water. Eating donuts and cookies? Swap in fruit."
Although carbohydrates like rice and pasta are allowed, you want to consume them in limited amounts, focusing more on fruits and vegetables. And Ryskamp encourages increasing your servings of nuts and legumes, like beans and lentils, as well.
"The more natural the makeup of a food, the more cardio protective it is."
She suggests focusing on the richness in nutrients, be it from phytonutrients that bring out the color in your foods or the soluble fiber found in them, which has shown to lower LDL cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar. Examples include oats, barley, flax seeds, legumes, dried beans, peas, apples, mangos, pears, berries, broccoli and green beans to name a few.
And as for sugar?
"The American Heart Association recommends women have no more than six teaspoons of added sugar a day, with men having no more than nine," says Ryskamp.
But how do you know how much is in the food you're eating? Check the label, Ryskamp advises.
"For example, a candy bar can have 17 grams of added sugar, which is equivalent to four teaspoons of added sugar."
Limit your sweets and treats to three small servings a week and eliminate all sugary beverages.
Recipe to try - Tart Cherry, Kale and Feta Stuffed Chicken
What you'll need
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 packed cup finely chopped kale
1/2 cup dried tart cherries
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
3 green onions, finely chopped
1 lb chicken cutlets (thinly sliced chicken breasts)
salt and pepper, to taste
Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a large pan over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook for four to five minutes, until softened and lightly browned.
Add the kale and dried tart cherries and cook until the kale is wilted. Place in a bowl and allow to cool slightly.
Add the feta, thyme and green onion to the kale/tart cherry mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Place 1/4 of the filling in the center of a chicken cutlet. Roll the chicken around the filling and secure with toothpicks. Repeat with the remaining chicken and all the filling.
Heat a large pan over high heat with another drizzle of olive oil. Add the chicken and sear until lightly browned on all sides.
Place the entire pan into the oven, then bake for 15 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through.
This recipe is from Fannetastic Food and was approved by the dietician in this article.
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