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Eating for a Healthy Heart

February is American Heart Month and food choices have a big impact on your heart’s health! Meals served at Senior Services Activity & Dining Centers and for Meals on Wheels are heart healthy. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I keep up to date on nutritional guidelines and use those guidelines to plan the meals served. Our goal is to serve delicious meals that are also nutritious. We accomplish this, and you can, too, by using lean protein sources, lower fat dairy, correct portions of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and staying within sodium intake guidelines.

Sodium is a hot topic when it comes to heart health. Although there are more and more articles questioning whether we need to limit sodium, the existing evidence and research remain strong for limiting it. The American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the USDA all recommend limiting your daily sodium to 2300mg for most people and 1500mg for older adults, especially for those with hypertension, diabetes and kidney disease.

Sodium and potassium are minerals that help regulate and balance the fluid in your body. When you include more sodium than your body can handle, it increases the amount of water in your blood vessels, which increases the amount of blood inside them. When this happens, your blood pressure increases. Over time, the blood vessels may stretch and the walls of the blood vessels get damaged and/or can build up plaque and fats that block blood flow. The extra pressure stresses the heart and causes it to work harder to pump blood through the body.

Sodium levels are included in the nutritional labeling information of most products. Most companies are trying to reduce the sodium content in foods, but this is easier said than done, so check labels carefully. Some foods may not taste salty but could contain a lot of sodium. One example is bread and other baked items. The sodium in bread and baked goods can range between 150-300mg per serving. Also, keep in mind that there is no health benefit to using sea salt over table salt. The main differences between the two salts are taste, texture and processing.

The best way to balance sodium intake is to include more high potassium foods. Foods high in potassium help control blood pressure by balancing out the sodium in the body and helping relax blood vessel walls, which in turn helps decrease your blood pressure.

Potassium is in all fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat and whole grains. Most people should consume 4000 mg of potassium per day unless they have kidney failure or other health issues that require limiting potassium. Potassium supplements are not recommended unless instructed by your physician. Unlike sodium, potassium is not always listed on the food label. Therefore, the best way to ensure enough potassium is to make sure you are including more fruits, vegetables, nuts, lean meats and low fat dairy in your diet.

Low fat, low sodium protein sources are important to include daily in correct portion sizes. It is a good idea to have some protein with each meal. Recently, there are many people pushing high protein diets, but heart experts agree that choice of protein source and quantity are the key. Select fish and lean poultry for your best protein source along with nuts and beans. Lean cuts of beef and pork (loin or round) are also acceptable, but limit the beef in your diet. Be cautious with processed meats, fish and nuts that are high in sodium.

Limit sweets and added sugar but not whole grains. It is important to eat grains, even for diabetics. Whole grains provide health benefits including dietary fiber, B-vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin and niacin), folate, magnesium and selenium. The B vitamins play a big role in the release of energy from protein, fat and carbohydrates and help maintain a healthy nervous system. Some whole grains are also fortified with iron. Research has shown that you should obtain 25-30gms of fiber per day at a minimum, but most people have a difficult time getting there. Dietary fiber from whole grains and other food may help reduce blood cholesterol level and lower risk of heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Fiber is also important for your intestinal system and proper bowel function.

Make smart food choices for a healthy heart. The benefits of a nutritious diet that is high in fiber can truly help with weight control, intestinal health, blood pressure and heart health.