Do’s and don’ts of heart healthy eating in the New Year
After the fun and festivities of Christmas, the New Year is a fantastic opportunity to look after your heart health by safely and effectively getting your eating back on track.
Good nutrition can help lower LDL cholesterol levels and so plays a key role in maintaining heart health. Below are some dietary do’s and don’ts that will help you get back on track in January.
Incidentally many of these suggestions are not just good for you and your heart health, they're also good for the environment.
Do… consider your entire dietary pattern rather than individual foods and sources of nutrients. The term ‘dietary pattern’ refers to the balance, variety, quantities and combinations of foods and drinks in your regular diet. Considering your diet in its entirety is more important than focusing on ‘superfoods’ or supplements.
Do… Try to follow a heart healthy diet whether you are at home, at work or in a restaurant. This might mean you have to plan ahead to have good choices available, perhaps having a ‘snack box’ full of nuts and fruit for days in the office or viewing a menu online so you can make your meal choice while you’re not hungry.
Do… make small, gradual changes to your diet. It is far better to make small dietary changes over time in order to form new habits, rather than making drastic changes that you struggle to keep to for more than a few weeks. A good starting point is to look at what you’re currently eating and see where changes can be made. Write down everything you eat and drink for a few days, or use one of the apps that are now available. Choose changes that will fit in with your lifestyle so you are more likely to stick to them long term.
Do… enjoy the journey. Eating for a healthy heart is a long-term project and so enjoy the changes you are making. Perhaps view it as a voyage of discovery and be curious about how each change makes you feel.
Do… get the balance right. Aim to fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with starchy foods (preferably wholegrains) and a quarter with low fat protein foods such as fish, chicken (without the skin), nuts, lentils or beans. If you are used to big portions, focus on adding fewer energy dense, fatty foods onto your plate and more plant-based, fibrous foods that will help fill you up without adding too many calories.
Do… incorporate plenty of variety. Eating a wide variety of different foods throughout the week makes it more likely you’ll get all the essential nutrients and antioxidants your body needs. A large American study found that those who included more than 30 different plant-based foods in their regular diet had a healthier gut microbiome than those with less variety in their diet. Interesting research suggests that this may have a role in heart health.
Do… choose minimally processed foods where possible. Opting for meals made from basic ingredients is not necessarily time consuming and tends to be much healthier than choosing ultra-processed foods high in salt, saturated fat and sugar.
Do… practice mindful eating. We get most enjoyment and satisfaction from the initial few mouthfuls of a dish and less satisfaction as we continue to eat. So, opt for small portions, eat slowly and really savour the flavours and aromas.
Do… be kind to yourself. Nobody has a perfect diet all the time and the occasional slip up is unlikely to make a difference to your health. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t always stick to your plan. Instead remind yourself why you want to eat a heart healthy diet and have a plan to get back on track; perhaps rereading this article would help?
Don’t… snack mindlessly. Instead of grazing between meals, consider why you are reaching for that snack: is it down to habit, or is it a reaction to stress or another emotion, or are you actually hungry? If it isn’t hunger then decide in advance on a new course of action when the urge to snacking arises. For example, if you get the urge to eat after snacks or meals, ‘talk to your urge’. Distract yourself with another activity and after 10-15 minutes these urges tend to pass. Distractions could include phoning or visiting a friend; going out for a walk; having a relaxing bath; cleaning your teeth; or doing all those odd jobs around the house that need attention.
If you are hungry then consider bringing your next meal forward. Or if that’s not possible have some healthy options to hand. You might also want to think about adding certain foods to your meals that leave you fuller for longer. Including wholegrain foods such as brown rice or wholegrain pasta, or starting with a smooth, blended soup, are healthy options that tend to stop you feeling hungry between meals and less likely to get the urge to snack.
Don’t…have remnants of Christmas in your house. Give away unwanted chocolates and biscuits so you only have food in your house that you are happy to eat.
Don’t… be influenced by unqualified claims and promises. We get bombarded with many wild claims in the media at this time of year promising fast weight loss, so become savvy about where you get nutrition information.
Don’t… cut out a whole food group. Cutting out carbs has become a popular way to lose weight. However, we get vital nutrients and fibre from carbohydrates so rather than cutting them out of your diet, switch to healthy carbs such as wholegrains and vegetables and reduce refined starchy and sugary foods.
Don’t… ban any food. This inevitably leads to obsessing over, and craving, that very food. It’s far more effective to include these foods in small portions, while improving the quality of your overall diet.
Don’t… assume all vegan food is healthy. While an unrefined vegan diet of unprocessed plant-based foods is heart healthy, vegan processed foods such as burgers or meat substitutes can be high in salt, added sugar and saturated fat which can lead to high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Don’t… rely on supplements to correct inadequacies of a poor quality diet. A well-balanced diet naturally provides a balanced combinations of essential nutrients, fibre and antioxidants and this cannot be replicated by supplements. It is far safer and more effective, not to mention cheaper, to opt for quality foods and a good balanced diet rather than relying on expensive supplements. The exceptions to this are vitamin D and folate supplements which are recommended by the government under certain circumstances, or when following the advice of your doctor or Registered Dietitian.