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Do your heart a favor: Eat well

Throughout February, we’ve been celebrating American Heart Month with free events and screenings to encourage our community to become as healthy as possible. Yesterday Weiss dietitian Andrea Hartnett, who also coordinates clinical nutrition services, explained seven factors to ensure optimal heart health.

“Life’s simple seven,” she called them. The steps correlate with the six Health for Life pillars with one addition: don’t smoke. The other pillars include maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in regular physical activity, managing blood pressure, taking charge of cholesterol, keeping blood sugar at healthy levels and eating a healthy diet.

Hartnett broke down the basic food groups and made recommendations based on American Heart Association guidelines, beginning with fruits and vegetables. People need approximately five cups daily, preferably from fresh or frozen sources, not cans, which tend to add preservatives.

“Fruits and vegetables have fiber, which lowers cholesterol levels and promotes gut health. Make sure you eat from all different color groups,” Hartnett said. Those include the leafy greens, orange citrus, white root vegetables and darker colored berries.

Whole grains serve as another source of fiber. Eat three 1-ounce servings (the equivalent of a single tortilla) daily. “Whole grains have more vitamins and minerals than refined grains,” Hartnett said, alluding to pasta and white bread. “That extra fiber will help with your cholesterol levels as well.”

Sodium, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed meats, however, will not help. Each contributes to higher blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. The American Health Association recently decreased the daily sodium requirement by one-third, bringing the amount down to 1500 milligrams a day—about ½ to ¾ teaspoon.

Food for good heart health

“Avoid high-sodium packaged and processed foods like soups, frozen dinners, lunch meats, chips and V8. And do not use the salt shaker,” Hartnett said.

Instead, look for products labeled “No Salt Added” and aim for foods with less than 300 mg per serving size.

Processed meats tend to be extremely high in sodium, which enables their preservation in the deli counter. “They’re also high in nitrates, which can cause cancer,” Hartnett said. She called for no more than two servings per week.

Fish, however, (especially the oily kind) are a different story. Eat at least two, 3.5-ounce servings a week, about the size of a deck of cards. Fish provide omega-3 fatty acids, which decrease triglyceride levels. Tuna, salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, trout, swordfish and halibut are ideal.

Nuts, legumes and seeds also help your heart stay healthy. Studies of walnuts, almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts and hazelnuts demonstrated a reduction of LDL (bad) cholesterol. Eat at least four servings a week, which amounts to one ounce per serving. That means 24 almonds, seven walnuts, eight Brazil nuts, 12 hazelnuts, 7.5 pecans, 47 pistachios or 35 peanuts.

Keep foods high in saturated fat, like most dairy products, to less than 7 percent of your total energy intake. For a 2,000-calorie diet, eat no more than 16 grams per day.

“Saturated fat increases total cholesterol and LDL. These are foods you really want to be aware of and gauge how much you’re eating per day,” Hartnett said.

Soup for your heart

Following Hartnett’s talk, Chef Martin Wallner of Chef Martin’s Alpine Brand served winter vegetable minestrone soup. A completely vegetarian soup, he used 13 different types of vegetables and a vegetable stock as base.

“This is the healthiest soup you can get right now—no MSG, no nitrates. Usually in winter you’re challenged, but that doesn’t mean that just because it’s February in Chicago, you can’t get fresh vegetables,” Wallner said.

And thanks to Hartnett, we understand exactly why they’re important in controlling blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and the other goals that make for a healthy life and a healthy heart. 

Looking for a minestrone soup recipe? Try this healthy option from the Food Network.


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