It’s American Heart Month and a perfect time to fall in love with food all over again. Eating for heart health is not about deprivation and tasteless meals. It’s about taking the things you love to eat and working with them so they are better for you. Here are some ideas.

Instead of pizza

Delicious though it may be, pizza is the perfect storm of artery-clogging, heart-hating food. Topped with loads of melting cheese, maybe some pepperoni and sausage, the healthy tomato sauce filled with antioxidants doesn’t stand a chance in combating the fat, salt, and chemicals on your pie. One slice of extra cheese pizza can contain up to 2/3 of your daily allowance of saturated fat, and cured meat isn’t doing you any favors in the sodium department.

Try: Healthier pizza

Go for quality over quantity when it comes to toppings, especially with cheese and meat. Use fresh, organic mozzarella sparingly over tomato sauce and a whole wheat crust. Substitute veggies instead of cured meats, or if you must have some meat topping, choose organic grass-fed, pastured ground beef, seasoned with plenty of oregano. Think strong, fresh herbs for flavor instead of added fat and salt, and balance your heart healthy meal with a big green salad.

Instead of soda

Soft drinks are the biggest source of sugar in our diet. Think switching to sugar-free diet soda is a good choice for your heart health? Think again. The artificial sweeteners in diet soda have been proven to cause weight gain around the belly, which is correlated with heart disease. Sugar causes hardening of the arteries, insulin resistance, and inflammation. For a man, just one sugary drink a day leads to a 20% increase in the risk of heart attack.

Try: Juice-spiked seltzer water

If you are weaning yourself off of the soda habit, try replacing it instead with a glass of 100% juice and seltzer water. As you give up soda altogether for your heart health, gradually increase the ratio of seltzer to juice so that eventually your seltzer water contains just a dash of juice for flavor. You can also freeze lemon or lime juice into ice cubes and use them to chill your water for a refreshing burst of citrus without the added sugar. Adding fresh stevia and mint leaves to your drink gives you another layer of flavor with just a hint of sweetness.

If berries are in season, try muddling a few berries in a glass with some mint and stevia leaves then topping with seltzer.

Instead of a big, juicy burger

That big, juicy burger is juicy for one reason: fat. The fattier the cut of beef, the juicier and moister it will be when it cooks up. But red meat is a serious threat to heart health, containing saturated fats that head straight to the arteries.

Try: Leaner cuts of beef, in moderation

Being heart healthy doesn’t necessarily mean sticking to an all-plant diet, but when choosing a cut of beef, stick with the five leanest: eye of round roast or steak, sirloin tip side steak, top round roast and steak, bottom round roast and steak, and top sirloin steak. Make it even better for you by choosing beef that is pastured and grass-fed. This beef has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, a crucial part of a healthy diet.

Because there is less fat, these cuts benefit from a marinade and a longer cooking time. Use the crockpot for a delicious roast, and or try sirloin steak served with flavorful, herbaceous (but not fat-filled) sauces like Chimichurri. Save beef for special occasions or family gatherings, and remember to watch serving size. A proper serving size of meat is three ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards. This portion offers you 25 grams of protein and is rich in iron.

Instead of fried food in a restaurant

Fish and chips, chicken tenders, and French fries: all of this crunchy, salty food may literally be the death of you. Many restaurants still fry in transfat, and they use their oil over and over. As they fry, the saturated fat concentrates in the fryer, on your food, and eventually in your arteries.

Try: Fry at home in healthier oil, or roasting

If you must fry, always practice moderation and indulge only occasionally to protect your heart health. When you do, use healthy oils like olive oil, and make sure the temperature is at 350-375 degrees before frying. At this temperature, the oils fry the surface quickly and have a hard time penetrating into the food.

If you can skip frying, try roasting your food for crispy texture. Tossed in olive oil and roasted on a baking sheet, broccoli develops crunchy bits and naturally sweetens as it cooks. Try roasting your potatoes instead of frying them and you may be surprised at how satisfying they can be.

Finally, a substitution that has nothing to do with food.

Instead of sitting in front of the TV or computer after dinner

A recent study found that a lack of exercise is twice as deadly as obesity.

Try: A 20-minute daily walk

A 20-minute daily walk after dinner can cut your risk of early death by as much as 30%. This is not to suggest that being overweight is okay as long as you get some daily exercise. Rather, exercise combined with healthy eating and moderate indulgence in the foods suggested above is a great way to reduce your risk of heart disease while lengthening your life. A quick daily walk can also help you connect more with your family, your dog, and your community, and a thriving social life is one of the keys to longevity. So while you are making positive strides to change your diet, remember to keep taking literal strides towards a healthier heart!

What are some of your favorite foods and how can you improve them for your heart health?

Image by denise carrasco via Flickr


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