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How diet affects your heart health

Our bodies are composed of multiple interwoven systems that work together on a second-by-second basis to keep us alive and healthy. Our hearts drive a significant part of this work and are responsible for blood and oxygen flow to the entire physical body, which allows myriad other functions to happen. 

Keeping the heart healthy is a balancing act involving many different facets. However, diet and exercise are two crucial contributing factors when it comes to setting our hearts up for success in the long run. 

At the start of the 20th century, heart disease was not a huge problem among Americans and took relatively few lives compared to other diseases like smallpox and measles. However, over the past 100 years, instances of heart disease have seen a serious uptick and is now one of the leading causes of death throughout the world. According to the CDC, one person dies every 36 seconds from heart disease, meaning one in every four American deaths are caused by heart disease. 

The American Heart Association cites diet as one of the best ways to combat heart disease. The nutrition industry in the United States encourages snacking periodically throughout the day to keep energy levels consistent, minimize cravings, and avoid binge eating. 

The snacks we reach for can play a huge part in heart health and can truly make or break our overall health and quality of life. Opting for nourishing, nutrient-dense snacks should be top priority when it comes to munching throughout the day. Read on to discover just how easy and beneficial it is to select heart healthy snacks and avoid snacking on unhealthy, nutrient poor ones. 

How to choose heart healthy snacks

As mentioned above, our hearts are part of an integrated organ system that regulates blood flow and oxygen distribution. Food is the original medicine and fortunately, there are plenty of products out there containing natural, organic ingredients that actively work to lower blood pressure, maintain blood sugar, and lower cholesterol. 

First, let’s examine ingredients to avoid:

  • Saturated fats. While our body does rely on healthy fats to function, however, too much fat, especially saturated fat, can cause the heart harm. Saturated fat increases cholesterol build up in the blood vessels surrounding the heart and can lead to blockages, high blood pressure, or even a heart attack. Saturated fats are most commonly found in fatty meats like sausage and beef, , fried foods, and pizza. 
  • Trans fats. This type of fat has the ability to raise LDL cholesterol (bad) and lower HDL cholesterol (good). This is considered the worst type of fat one can consume and it’s frequently found in heavily processed snacks, frozen items, microwavable items, and baked goods. 
  • Processed and refined sugar. Sugar is incredibly difficult to avoid as many food manufacturers are guilty of adding it to all sorts of products, even savory snacks. It’s practically a full-time job to avoid all processed sugar entirely, but cutting out foods that are high in sugar, like sweet beverages, desserts, dressings, sauces, and packaged baked goods can help reduce overall consumption drastically. Spiking blood sugar levels can cause insulin levels to also rise and fall, increasing the risk of developing type II diabetes. 
  • Artificial ingredients. As a rule of thumb, stay away from ingredients you can’t easily pronounce. Additives are found in a number of foods to increase their shelf lives, prevent clumping, encourage thickening, enhance color, and so much more. While many artificial ingredients – like guar gum, monosodium glutamate, and sodium benzoate – have been approved by the FDA, they shouldn’t be consumed in excess as the results on the body are still questionable. 
  • Sodium heavy foods. Snacks, processed meats (slim jims, jerky, lunch meats), and fast food contain high levels of sodium that can increase blood pressure or put one in a higher risk category of developing high blood pressure later in life. Excess salt encourages the body to retain water which can strain the blood vessels and kidneys. 

Snack suggestions

Stock the desk drawer, the pantry, and your backpack with heart-healthy snacks to avoid unhealthy options when hunger strikes. The following foods provide healthy, nutrient-rich options that work for your heart, rather than against it. 

  • Nuts and seeds. Roasted pumpkin seeds, almonds, flax, chia, and cashews provide excellent sources of healthy fats that are slow for the body to break down. Nuts offer long, sustained energy and don’t cause severe blood sugar spikes. 
  • Veggies and hummus. Chickpeas (the main ingredient in hummus) are protein dense and contain fiber. Additionally, beans and peas are full of plant sterols, like sitosterol, that lowers bad cholesterol. Water-dense veggies, like celery,  provide a filling, fibrous crunch that satisfies cravings.  
  • Apples and nut butter. The natural sugar contained in apples helps fight sugar cravings and regulates insulin levels while providing a quick burst of energy. Natural peanut butter, almond butter, or sunflower seed butter with no sugar added keeps us full while the pectin contained in apples has been shown to improve cardiovascular disease risk factors. Put sliced apples and almond butter on whole grain toast for a hearty breakfast that keeps glucose levels stable. 
  • Avocado. This fruit contains monounsaturated fats which are good for the heart and provide sustainable energy for the brain. High levels of potassium encourage a regular heart beat while antioxidants protect cells from free radicals, which may be a contributing factor to heart disease. Spread avocado slices on whole grain toast and drizzle olive oil on top for a low sodium snack that helps you avoid packaged foods. 
  • Energy bites. Depending on your food preferences or intolerances, energy bites can be created from a variety of heart-healthy ingredients. Use oats for their cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber and seeds or nuts for their filling, energy giving unsaturated fat. Dried fruits can supply a high dose of antioxidants and minerals. 
  • Chia seed pudding. Chia seeds are famous for their cardiac boosting properties. High in fiber, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids, chia seeds can lower inflammation, triglycerides, and help individuals lose weight, which allows the heart to work less. Top with fresh fruit or granola for a complete meal. 
  • Legumes. Skip red meat and incorporate legumes for lunch or dinner to partake in their micronutrients. Legumes are cholesterol free, low in fat, and low on the glycemic index, meaning this food doesn’t raise glucose levels in the same way that foods high in sugars do. Edamame are easy to source and often come in convenient, ready to serve packages. Refrain from adding sodium to your edamame so it retains its status as a heart-healthy food. 
  • Dark Chocolate. For a sweet treat that’s packed with antioxidants, put some dark chocolate bars in the freezer. Dark chocolate that contains at least 70% or more cacao has less sugar but more flavanols, meaning you can still have a decadent treat without indulging in a sugary baked item. 
  • Greek yogurt. Certain studies have linked Greek yogurt to lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels. Snack on a serving of greek yogurt with oats, apple slices, dark chocolate chips, and chia seeds in between lunch and dinner to keep energy levels high, naturally. Purchase Greek yogurt with no added sugar for healthy eating. 

The Takeaway  

Maintaining a healthy diet is key in keeping your heart healthy. Precursors to heart disease – such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol – can be reduced or mitigated completely by sticking to a high-quality diet full of nutrients. Make these simple swaps one step at a time so the healthy option becomes the habitual one. 

UCF Health’s online resources can help individuals achieve a healthier quality of life and reduce the risk for heart disease. Our patient portal is easy to use and offers online scheduling, COVID-19 updates for patients, and more. Start your journey to better health with the help of an Orlando cardiologist who can advise on crucial dietary swaps to foster better heart health. 

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