Are your food choices harming your heart?
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States, with an estimated 647,000 Americans dying from heart disease each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While there is a range of risk factors for heart disease (including high blood pressure and cholesterol, smoking, obesity, diabetes and physical inactivity), a poor diet is one of the most common causes and also one of the most controllable.
Improving your diet is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to reduce your risk of heart disease. However, the prevalence of unhealthy fastfood options often makes it difficult to make better choices. A Dutch study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that people living within a half-mile of fast-food restaurants are more likely to develop heart disease than those living farther away, exposing the link between access to fast food and an increased risk for heart disease.
With fast-food restaurants practically everywhere, this is a huge problem. Even though most of us know that fast food is unhealthy, the convenience and high-satiety nature of fast food keep us coming back again and again. The most popular fast-food options are high in calories, fat, sugar and sodium, all of which contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and, in turn, a greater risk of heart disease. Studies also show that regular fast-food consumption can lead to increased inflammation, higher cancer rates, and a greater chance of allergic and autoinflammatory diseases.
When patients ask for help to improve their food choices, the first thing we recommend is to start cooking more at home. When you prepare your own meals, you not only avoid a lot of the high fat, sugar and sodium found in fast food, but you also become more aware of what you are putting on your plate and into your body. Cooking at home, regardless of which diet you follow, is a great first step toward building a better diet overall.
If you want to create even more heart-healthy benefits, try to be mindful of these three things: portion control, cooking methods and healthy substitutions.
Practice portion control by using smaller plates. Fill one-half with a colorful mixture of fruits and vegetables, one-quarter with whole-grains such as brown rice and whole-grain pasta and the remaining quarter with a protein source like fish, lean meat or legumes.
Choose healthier styles of cooking: bake, broil, grill or roast instead of pan-frying or deep-frying food. Slow cookers and instant cookers also offer easy ways to create delicious, healthy meals.
Be smart with the foods you choose, and substitute high-fat foods with healthier choices. For example, rather than using sour cream, make the switch to plain, low-fat yogurt. Substitute fullfat cheese for cheeses lower in fat and sodium. To limit sodium intake, spice up your dishes with fresh or dried herbs like dill, paprika or ginger. A combination of lightly sautéed garlic, onions and red peppers make a great addition for a flavorful meal.
A lack of time is one of the most common excuses for grabbing fast food instead of preparing meals at home, but a little planning can go a long way to avoiding the drive-thru. Meal-prepping is one of the simplest, most effective ways to stick to your meal plan. Take some time to prepare a few meals or ingredients at the beginning of the week, or make enough to enjoy as leftovers when cooking a weeknight meal. Try using pre-cut vegetables, bagged salads, canned beans or lentils, and pre-grated cheese to cut down on preparation time.
If you do find yourself eating out, don’t forget that you are still in control of what you choose to eat. Restaurants are usually more than happy to accommodate individual preferences, so ask for salad dressing on the side or a baked potato instead of fries. If you are having trouble finding a healthy option at a restaurant, look for the words baked, barbecued, broiled, charbroiled, grilled, poached, roasted and steamed. These descriptions typically indicate that the food is cooked with little to no fat.
A healthy diet is crucial for a heart-healthy lifestyle, but regular checkups are also important to reduce your risk for heart disease. To schedule an appointment with an ACS cardiologist, call (318) 798-9400.
Dr. Trey Baucum is a cardiologist at Advanced Cardiovascular Specialists in Shreveport, La. He graduated from Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans in 1988 and has been practicing in the area for 32 years. To learn more about Advanced Cardiovascular Specialists, visit www.ACSDoctors.com.