Have a Healthy Heart: Tips for Eating Well

Feb. 10, 2022

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Heart disease is the second-leading cause of death in South Carolina. During American Heart Month, take time to focus on your cardiovascular health. 

Heart disease refers to several types of heart conditions that can lead to heart attacks. In 2015, 10,034 people died from heart disease in South Carolina. Risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and smoking. 

One way you can improve your heart health is by eating a well-balanced and healthy diet. We talked with Bianca Alicea, a BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina care manager, about what you can do to eat well for your heart. 

“All adults, unless they have a medical condition for which a doctor has recommended another specific diet, should follow these guidelines. It can help with high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes management, and it can be a powerful resource for disease prevention,” Alicea says. 

Portion sizes: How much you eat and drink is as important as what you eat. Use a small plate or bowl to help control portions and put an emphasis on incorporating fruits and vegetables. Getting enough fiber and eating slower is also important in planning your meals. The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests following these daily amounts.  

Whole foods: Whole foods have been minimally processed. Whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables are considered whole foods. Think of them as foods without labels or long lists of ingredients you can’t pronounce. Cooking with whole foods limits unhealthy fats, added sugars and excess salt in your diet. 
Fruits and vegetables: You don’t have to shop at a farmers market to add more fruits and vegetables to your diet. It doesn’t hurt, though. And it can be good for the environment. Alicea says frozen and canned vegetables can be just as healthy as fresh ones, but make sure you read the labels to check for added sugars or high sodium. 
Whole grains: The AHA recommends whole grains as a source of dietary fiber, which can improve blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk for heart disease. Check nutrition labels for “whole” or “whole grain” as the first ingredient. You can find more information on how to spot whole grains on the AHA’s website

Healthy fats: The AHA recommends replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats, found in foods like avocados, extra-virgin olive oil, nuts and fish, can improve heart health. 
Lean proteins: When picking a protein source for your meal, look for lean and unprocessed options, plant sources, nonfat or low-fat dairy, and fish and seafood. Red meats typically have higher amounts of saturated fat than skinless chicken, fish or plant proteins. You should also pay attention to the portion size of your protein. The AHA has a helpful guide on its website

Low sodium: Most Americans eat more salt than is needed for a balanced diet. Much of this is hidden in our processed foods. When picking items at the grocery store, get in the habit of reading the label to check for sodium. Look for items labeled “low sodium” or “no salt added.”  

“It is important to remember this is not a quick fix. These are lifestyle changes, so it's OK to give yourself a treat occasionally. The key is moderation,” Alicea says. 

Every positive change makes a difference. If you make a mistake, it is OK. Don’t give up.  

“If eating healthy is not something you've been doing all along, don't get discouraged. Even if you start implementing these beneficial lifestyle choices today, you can benefit from it. You can help yourself,” she says. 

The AHA, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are independent organizations that offer health information you may find helpful.

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