Red light, green light: Your guide to heart-healthy eating

On TV, in the news, in your monthly magazine … It seems like everywhere you turn, healthy eating is a topic of conversation. But how can you know what to eat for a healthy heart?

Healthy eating can seem complicated. But in reality, making a few smart choices can help you reduce your risk of developing heart disease and stroke — and keep your heart healthy.

How can you know what the smart choice is? Try using our guide below. Just like with a traffic stoplight, a green light means go, a yellow light means caution, and a red light means stop.

Green light

Fill up your diet with the good stuff:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Legumes, such as lentils or chickpeas
  • Nuts and seeds, such as sunflower seeds and walnuts in moderation
  • Healthy fats and oils, such as canola or olive oil, in moderation
  • If you choose to eat animal products, follow these guidelines:
    • Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon or tuna
    • Skinless chicken or turkey
    • Non-fat or reduced fat dairy offers a useful suggestion: Fill at least half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, then one-quarter with whole grains and the remaining one-quarter with a lean protein.

Fruits and vegetables don’t have to be freshly picked. While in-season fruits and veggies may be the most appealing, choose frozen fruits and vegetables without sauces for all of the nutritional benefits and good taste found in fresh. You can also eat canned fruits and veggies but look for varieties without sauces, added sugar, or added sodium.

If you choose to eat animal products, fish can be particularly heart-healthy. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating two servings (approximately 3.5 ounces cooked) of fish each week. Fatty fish are best, since they contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Healthy fats, nuts, and seeds straddle the line between green and yellow foods. While these are healthy, they should be eaten in moderation since they contain high amounts of fat and calories.

Remember, the number of calories eaten in a day determines how much weight we lose or gain.  If we eat more calories than we burn with activity, then we will gain weight—even if they are all healthy calories!

Yellow light

Certain foods should be eaten in moderation. Limit your intake of:

  • Sodium
  • Saturated fats, which are found in fatty cuts of meat, butter, and whole or 2 percent dairy
  • Added sugars
  • Red meat
  • Processed foods, particularly meats

The AHA recommends limiting sodium intake to no more than one teaspoon, or 2,300 milligrams, of sodium per day.

You’d think that the saltshaker would be the biggest contributor to our sodium consumption, right? Wrong. About 75 percent of our daily sodium intake comes from processed and restaurant foods.

Sodium comes in hidden places — you’ll find high levels of sodium in breads, cold cuts, pizza and soup. Check labels or nutrition apps and websites to try and find low-sodium or sodium-free foods whenever possible.  My fitness pal is a free app that can record diet logs as well as estimate nutrition information including calories and sodium content for the day.

Sugar also hides in the foods we eat. Some sugars are found naturally, and those are typically fine additions to your diet. But limit added sugars.

The AHA recommends women eat no more than six teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar each day and men eat no more than nine teaspoons (36 grams). In reality, many Americans eat far more than that — some reports indicate that the average American eats 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day.

In general, limit your consumption of sweets and sweetened beverages. If you see corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey or any type of sugar on the label, eat only moderate portions of those foods on occasion.

Red light

There are very few foods you should simply avoid. But in general, skip foods that contain trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils, which are found in fried foods, baked goods and even margarine.

If a food contains these items, it will typically include “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening” in the ingredient list.

Trans fats have many negative effects on the body including increasing your low-density lipoprotein (bad) cholesterol levels and decreasing your high-density lipoprotein (good) cholesterol levels, which raises your risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

At the end of the day, food should be nourishment for our body and help us maintain health. This can be accomplished by increasing the number of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains we consume, and limiting processed food. You are what you eat, really is true!

If you or a loved one have already been diagnosed with a heart-related condition, Erlanger Health System offers comprehensive cardiac services. Learn more about The Erlanger Heart and Lung Institute here.