February is National Heart Month, and with Valentine’s Day around the corner, what better time to show our appreciation? Meatless Monday has compiled a new cookbook to celebrate the occasion: We ♡ Comfort Food: Heart-Healthy Meatless Monday Recipes. In anticipation of its release, we sat down with Diana Rice, Meatless Monday’s Registered Dietitian, to discuss all things hearty and healthy.
Meatless Monday: What is “heart-healthiness,” broadly defined? What are some of the hallmarks of a heart healthy diet?
Diana Rice: Heart disease, which encompasses a number of deadly conditions related to how well our hearts and blood vessels function, is the number one cause of death in the U.S. and globally. So many elements of our modern lifestyles contribute to developing the condition, including poor diet, lack of exercise and tobacco use.
Heart-healthiness, then, is living a lifestyle that prevents or delays the degeneration of the heart. Diet is a huge element, and it’s one that is well within our power to control. A heart-healthy diet should contain lots of fiber and other nutrients from whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein from legumes, poultry or fish, and very limited amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugar from animal products and processed foods.
MM: Aside from the obvious reason, why is heart-healthiness so essential?
DR: From the moment we’re born, not a second goes by that our hearts aren’t working to keep us alive, right? To me, that sounds like something worth protecting. Having a healthy heart isn’t just about avoiding an untimely death. Our hearts are responsible for sending life-sustaining oxygen to every cell in our bodies. When it’s functioning well, we feel energetic and have the ability to live our daily lives to the fullest, whether that’s running a marathon or simply climbing the stairs and playing with our kids.
MM: Are there any misconceptions about supposed “heart-healthy” foods that you’d like to address? Or, conversely, any foods that have a deserved reputation for being heart healthy?
DR: Here at Meatless Monday, we’re well aware of the association between foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol and heart disease. But a newer area of research is how our consumption of added sugar is also connected to the disease. So just because a food is fat and cholesterol free, it doesn’t mean it’s a healthy choice for your heart. Current guidelines recommend that for a heart-healthy diet, women should consume less than 24 grams of sugar per day and men less than 36 grams—or roughly 6 and 9 teaspoons, respectively. Forget soda – many people add that much to their coffee! Added sugar also lurks in many seemingly healthy products, like yogurt and muffins, so read labels carefully.
MM: Labels are certainly helpful at the grocery store. When eating out, however, it can be difficult to decipher a restaurant’s menu. In terms of both ingredients and preparation, what should we look for and what should we avoid?
DR: First, think about portion sizes. I’m a big fan of the newer “under 500 calories” menu sections that are gaining popularity. If you stick to ordering from that section, or perhaps if you split a larger dish, your choice may still fit within a heart-healthy diet. A six-ounce steak will have about four grams of saturated fat. That choice is fine for most people on occasion, but the problem is we don’t usually eat six ounces in a restaurant, we eat a whole pound!
It’s also important to look for heart-healthy preparations. Something tomato-based, whether it’s marinara on a pasta dish or BBQ sauce on a piece of lean chicken, is almost always going to be a better choice than a heavy butter- or cheese-based sauce like an alfredo. Also look for dishes that are at least 50% non-starchy vegetables (think onions, broccoli, zucchini) and if the veggies are served on the side, ask that they be prepared with olive oil instead of butter.
MM: What’s the single most important dietary change a person can make to encourage heart-healthiness?
DR: Switch to a more plant-based diet. And you know I don’t mean more potato chips and popsicles! Study after study has shown that those of us who regularly choose fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains over animal products and processed foods maintain healthier body weights and are less likely to develop heart disease and other deadly conditions like diabetes and cancer.
And I know you only asked for one, but this is just as important: watch your salt intake. Excess sodium can cause our bodies to retain to too much fluid, which leads to high blood pressure, a huge risk factor for heart attack and stroke. My favorite sodium tip is to consume an appropriate number of calories for your body (typically about 2,000) and choose foods with fewer milligrams of sodium than calories. That way, you’re almost certain to keep your sodium intake under the recommended target of 2,300 mg per day. (Note: people with certain risk factors may need to further limit their intake. Find out if this applies to you here.)
MM: What are some signposts on the road to a healthier heart? What can we anticipate and how should we track our progress?
DR: We’ve talked a lot about healthy eating, but it’s just as important to exercise regularly and not smoke. These combined factors should help you control the three key numbers that affect your risk of having a deadly cardiac event: your blood pressure, your cholesterol levels and your waist size. We often hear about the first two, but waist size is an interesting – and extremely important – factor as well. Women with waists over 35 inches and men with waists over 40 inches have a much higher risk of developing heart disease. If you’re at risk, bringing your number down by even one inch can really improve your health. But as always, it’s important to talk to your doctor about exactly what your target numbers for each of these factors should be and the best plan to help get you there.