How to make heart healthy food choices? The question can baffle Canadians, says Toronto dietitian Leslie Beck, as they struggle to translate scientific research into actual items on their daily menu. It doesn’t help that we might not be as savvy as we think when it comes to making informed decisions around food.
In a Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition survey, 80 percent of Canadians said they were very or somewhat knowledgeable about nutrition. Yet less than two-thirds of Canadians eat breakfast or lunch daily. Less than 25 percent look for nutrition information while eating out. And 63 percent mistakenly believe that the amount of cholesterol you eat is a major factor affecting blood cholesterol. In fact, as a rule, the cholesterol in the foods you eat has little or no impact on your cholesterol levels; your intake of saturated and trans fats is what matters most.
Fill Up on Fibre
Research has revealed that if you add any one soluble fibre, nuts, soy protein or plant sterols into a low-fat diet, you can expect to lower your LDL cholesterol by about five percent. But when you introduce all four, says Beck, author of Heart Healthy Foods for Life, you can lower your LDL cholesterol by 30 percent. That requires adding things like oat bran, oatmeal, almonds, soy milk, tofu, veggie dogs or burgers, and either plant sterol-enriched margarine (not yet available in Canada) or plant sterols in supplements.
Vitamin D, Please
One of the newest areas of research into nutrition and heart disease concerns vitamin D, reports Beck. A recent study found that people with low levels of vitamin D, compared to those with higher levels, were twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke within five years. Vitamin D is found in some foods-fortified milk, oily fish, egg yolks-but that won’t give us enough to maintain good health. We rely on sunshine (often in short supply in Canada) for vitamin D. Here’s a case where vitamin D supplements could help, says Beck, and could reduce the risk of certain cancers, too.
Dining Out Healthy
Beck says that anyone concerned about heart healthy diets should be especially careful when dining out, particularly at chain and family-style restaurants. In her study, a pasta entrée at one chain-which included a healthy sounding chicken breast, roasted tomatoes and spinach-delivered as many calories and as much fat as two Big Macs.
She says beware of these words on the menu-fried, basted, braised, crispy, scalloped, pan seared, stewed and sautéed. It usually means lots of fat and calories. Instead, look for baked, broiled, grilled, steamed, poached, roasted and stir-fried.
Whether eating out or at home, says Beck, just be mindful of some basic elements of a heart healthy diet-fish at least twice a week; a few (or more) vegetarian meals a week; nuts (e.g. almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pistachios), fruits and vegetables; low-fat dairy products’ lean poultry or beef; legumes (e.g. kidney beans, black beans, peas, lentils); and whole grains. Remember, lots of foods may be hearty-but only some are actually good for your heart.