So we know that fiber and omega-3s make our hearts sing with healthful glee, but what foods out there make our hearts unhappy? A broken heart isn't just a metaphor for unrequited romance: heart disease is the number one leading cause of death in the United States, for both men and women. Unhealthy hearts account for about 600,00 deaths every year: that is, heart disease is responsible for one out of every four American deaths.
Mindful eating—along with an active lifestyle—is the most effective way to avoid becoming another heart disease statistic. And while that doesn't mean vowing a cheeseburger-free existence for the rest of your days or confining yourself to a kale-only diet, there are some common—nay, ubiquitous—foodstuffs to forgo, limit, or eliminate for the sake of a happy ticker.
- Eliminate trans fats. The much-ballyhooed (and, in some cases, even outlawed) trans fat warrants its evil reputation. It actually acts as a "double whammy" against health: it doesn't just raise levels of "bad" (LDL) cholesterol that clogs your arteries, but actually, simultaneously, lowers the "good" (HDL) cholesterol that helps clean away the heart disease-causing LDL.
The vast majority of trans fats are added into processed foods as a way to preserve shelf life or improve "mouth feel." The easiest way to avoid this processed additive is by skipping foods that contain "hydrogenated oil" or "partially hydrogenated oil" in their ingredient lists. Big culprits include packaged snacks, crackers, bakery goods, and some margarines. Don't trust the packaging: just because the front of a package says "zero trans fat," in truth, that cookie in your hand may still contain up to half a gram of the artery-clogging stuff. Remember to read the nutrition info and ingredient list, carefully.
2. Limit saturated fat. In a well-balanced diet, there is a small role for saturated fats which, unlike the Frankenfoodish trans fat, is naturally occurring, such as in dairy products (cheese, sour cream, butter) and other foods (mayonnaise, fatty cuts of meat). Saturated fats elevate bad cholesterol levels, which leads to plaque buildup in your arteries—the precursor to a heart attack or stroke.
Generally speaking, saturated fats should comprise no more than 10% of your total daily caloric intake. For example if you're consuming 2,000 calories a day then your saturated fat allotment should be 200 calories. (Since fat is 9 calories a gram, that adds up to 22 grams of saturated fat a day.) If you find you're often far exceeding this allotment, try to limit it wherever you can: replace butter with vegetable-based oils, particularly olive and canola oil, both of which contain good amounts of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, and swap out red meats for lean poultry, fish, or beans.
3. Reduce salt intake. Americans, on average, consume 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day. That's a third more than the daily recommended limit of 2,300 mg (about 1 teaspoon of salt) and more than double the 1,500 mg suggestion for adults age 51 and older and for anyone who is salt-sensitive, e.g., people who are African-American, those with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease—about half the US population.
Cutting your sodium intake can help lower high blood pressure or even reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure later on. One of the simplest ways to reduce sodium is to stop adding it where you don't even taste it, and reserve that extra pinch of table salt where it will pack the most flavorful punch. Forgo the pinch in the pot of boiling water for pasta or potatoes, and save it for the sprinkle on top of your plate. A little salt goes a longer way after the food is cooked and just before serving; you'll taste it in every bite.
Another way to slash your sodium intake is to replace sodium-laden processed foods with fresh foods. Other tricks: look for "low sodium" or "no-salt-added" labels and rinse canned beans. Stay smart about label reading diligence: don't be fooled by "reduced sodium" on the front package, which may indicate only 33% less than the sodium-soaring original.
4. Avoid added sugar. No two ways about it: Americans eat too much sugar. We consume 20 teaspoons—352 calories—of sugar a day according to the 2005-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Men and teenagers consume the most amount of sugar.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), reducing added sugars will reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease risk. In March of 2014, the World Health Organization recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar for adults and children. To put it in perspective: a can of soda can have 40 grams—or 10 teaspoons—of sugars.
These recommendations apply only to added sugars, which supply calories but no nutritional value, and not to sugars that occur naturally in healthful foods like fruit. It's fairly easy to keep track of sugars you add yourself. Added sugars in processed foods are more difficult to track, since the category "Sugars" on the nutrition label includes both natural and added sugars. Check the ingredient list for sugar and all its pen names: high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener or syrup, honey, beet or date sugar, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, invert sugar, malt sugar, malt syrup, and all those chemical-sounding molecules that end in "-ose" (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose). Ingredients are listed by weight so the closer to the top, the more sugars the food contains.
So while we actually have no qualms with a cheeseburger-free lifestyle, you may not have to take it to quite such an extreme. These four, simple "rules" of what to avoid, limit, or eliminate can go a long way toward reaching your cardiovascular health goals. Either way, don't completely shun the kale.