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7 steps to a heart-healthy diet

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. In honor of American Heart Health month, here's a look how you can eat smart to protect your ticker.
National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day
How can we decide which food to keep and which to toss?AndreyPopov / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Many people associate heart-healthy eating with a sense of deprivation and “what I can’t have.”

In honor of American Heart Health Month, let’s flip that idea around and not only talk about all of the foods we can eat, but also ways to include all of our favorite foods in a heart-healthy lifestyle. Remember, every step matters. So start small, and change your habits to build an eating plan that works for you.

1. Learn to barter (and plan ahead).

Pre-plan your eating day and avoid thinking of certain foods as “good” and “bad.” Find ways to include “treat” or “indulgent” foods. This is key to avoid feeling deprived and sabotaging your eating plan. Bartering allows you to make swaps to include whatever you choose, but not all at once. For example, choose a glass of wine for dessert instead of a piece of cake. Or, skip the bread roll if you opt for a baked potato as as side dish. This requires thinking about what you’d really like to eat and making conscious choices under your control. Also consider repetition: have the same breakfast or lunch every day. This provides much-needed structure with built in pre-planning.

2. Recognize portion distortion.

Overeating always leads (over time) to weight creep. And extra weight puts an added strain on your heart. It’s so easy to overeat, even with healthy foods. And once you’ve made some food swaps to focus on heathier choices (the first step), it’s important to pick a calorie range that supports weight stability. If you’re overweight or obese, there’s an extra strain on your heart. And studies show that none of us are very good when it comes to “eyeballing” portions, so pay attention to serving sizes. Smaller plates and glassware help! And learn to share a meal, especially in restaurants where portions are typically huge.

3. Reduce your sodium (salt) intake.

Too much salt can impact your body’s salt and water balance, which can raise blood pressure.

It might surprise you to know that around 80 percent of the salt we consume daily comes from processed and packaged foods. Only around 10 percent of our daily salt intake comes from the shaker! The easiest way to reduce your salt intake is to limit your intake of processed foods, especially canned soups and deli meats. While it’s healthiest to stick with fresh fruits, vegetables and plain grains, when you do choose packaged products, read the labels and look for reduced sodium items.

And skip the high sodium condiments like soy sauce and ketchup. For healthy people, limit your total sodium intake to 2,300 mg (or less), with a goal of 1,500 mg. Most people consume at least three times that amount daily!

4. Choose more fruits and vegetables.

Fruits and vegetables are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants - all important factors supporting a healthy cholesterol level, blood pressure and circulation. Most women struggle to get even a few servings of fruits and vegetables daily. The key is regular intake. Your goal should be one more vegetable than you currently eat; work up to at least three to five if you can. Look for frozen vegetables as an easy option. A variety of colorful fruit and veggies is important to provide some value-added phytonutrients (those antioxidants that give the produce a certain color). And the natural fiber in fruits and veggies, along with loads of vitamins and minerals, is a true health boost.

5. Limit unhealthy fats.

Studies show that the type of fat — not the amount — contributes to a healthy heart. Saturated (animal) fats are the artery-clogging type found in full fat dairy and fatty cuts of red meat. Limit fatty cuts and marbled red meats. Look for the words “loin” or “round” when choosing meats. Stick with plant oils (except coconut oil, which is mostly saturated) and plant proteins when you can. And read the label on packaged and processed foods for heart-healthy vegetable oils. Some examples are olive, canola, corn, avocado or those made from nuts and seeds.

6. Select whole grains.

Another great source of dietary fibers, vitamins and minerals is from whole, unprocessed grains. Like produce, these nutrients support healthy cholesterol and blood pressure. While not essential for heart health — as long as fiber-rich fruits and veggies are included — these starchy carbohydrates can be healthful, filling and a part of daily eating. Look for 100 percent whole wheat, oatmeal, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa and barley. Aim for three to five grams of fiber per half cup serving. And remember that a serving size doesn’t need to be the typical package recommendation of one cup; you can choose to downsize your serving anytime.

7. Treat yourself regularly to avoid deprivation.

To stay on track for the long term, it’s essential to include some “treats.” Figure out what your own special favorites are and what will satisfy without triggering overeating. It might be a sweet and fat combo, or a sugary treat. For others, it’s a savory treat or starchy carbohydrate, like a bagel or Italian bread.

And when it comes to chocolate and wine (unless you already consume these items), don’t add them to your daily eating plan as a way to boost heart health. If you’re consuming them only for health reasons, you can feel free to swap to something you’d rather eat.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is the NBC News Health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.

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