Navigating Heart Health: A Cardiovascular Dietitian’s Personal Diet Choices

It’s no secret that the choices we make can affect our heart. This includes diet, physical activity, smoking and sleep patterns. According to the American Heart Association, one in three adults has heart disease. Additionally, 103 million Americans have high blood pressure, which increases their risk of a heart attack or stroke.

To help you prevent heart disease, UC Davis Health registered dietitian Margie Junker, who specializes in cardiovascular nutrition, has some suggestions.

Here are seven things she likes to eat — and tips for what to avoid — for a healthy heart. (These points coincide with the 2021 American Heart Association scientific statement on dietary guidance to improve cardiovascular health.)

1. Get plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Eat: My favorite are blueberries because they’re a great snack, either fresh or frozen. I also love how easy spinach is to use. You can use fresh spinach as a salad or quickly sauté with garlic and onions. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Dried, fresh, frozen, or low sodium canned fruits and veggies all work.

Avoid: I avoid canned fruit in heavy syrup and any foods with high fructose corn syrup.

2. Choose foods made with mostly whole grains rather than refined grains.

Eat: My favorite grains to eat are quick oats and quinoa. Both are whole grain and easy to cook.

Avoid: I stay away from foods containing processed white flour because there are fewer nutrients and no fiber.

3. Choose healthy sources of protein.

Eat: There are some great options that are my go-tos in this category.

  • Plant protein: I love to eat a serving of nuts daily. Walnuts and almonds are known for their omega 3 fatty acids. A quarter cup of nuts makes a great snack. Eating more nuts was associated with lower risk of heart disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke. Lentils are high in fiber, high in protein, easy to cook, and may cause less gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort than beans. A higher intake of legumes (beans and peas) is linked to lower heart disease risk. 
  • Fish and seafood: My favorites are salmon or seared ahi tuna because they are high in protein, have fewer calories and contain healthy heart Omega 3 fatty acids.
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy products: My favorite is non-fat Greek yogurt because of its versatility. It’s high in protein, has a lot of calcium, and can replace sour cream in many recipes. It’s a great breakfast option, stirred with quick oats and berries.
  • Lean cuts of meat and poultry: There is a direct association between eating red meat and the risk of heart disease and death. That relationship is even stronger for processed meat such as bacon or hot dogs. Instead of processed meats, I often choose skinless chicken thighs. It’s leaner than most beef, affordable and has more flavor than chicken breast, which I get tired of.

Avoid: I avoid processed meats. What’s in it? It’s a mystery!  I also steer clear of full-fat dairy products.

4. Use liquid plant oils.

Eat: My favorite is avocado oil, which has a high smoke point at 520 degrees. I like to bake with walnut oil for added flavor. Liquid plant oils are rich in unsaturated fats, which reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and heart disease risk. These include oils from peanuts, most tree nuts, and flax seeds.

Avoid: I stay away from fats that are hard at room temperature, such as bacon grease, shortening and margarine. I also avoid tropical oils (coconut, palm, and palm kernel), animal fats (butter and lard), and partially hydrogenated fats. Occasionally, I use small amounts of coconut oil or butter to flavor specific recipes.

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