Confessions 101: I don’t eat perfectly. I often use microwavable vegetables. I don’t make every meal from scratch and sometimes I even pass up the organic lettuce because it’s too expensive. I am, however, confident in my ability to let my body lead me towards optimal health as I grow and change. I have also learned that perfection is not necessary and, in fact, can be a road-block when trying to change your diet.
Heart disease is the deadliest disease in America, but there are ways to prevent and reserve it. If you think of bland, boring, and restrictive when you hear “heart healthy,” you are not alone. I know that a heart healthy diet doesn’t have to be these things, but my brain goes to the same place when I see this health claim. I want to challenge you to think outside the box, follow a few simple guidelines, and allow your body to lead you to the diet that is best for you. Don’t expect your food to be perfect. It’s just like our lives: messy, complicated, but also beautiful and amazing.
The most important components to a heart healthy diet are as follows: reduce dietary fat (especially animal fat) and avoid the engineered “low-fat” or “nonfat” foods, eat a plant based diet, and reduce stress. Not everyone tolerates a meat-free diet, but you can still be healthy if you make better meat selections and reduce your intake. Stress reduction...we all seem to need it, most of us seek it, yet we seem to be failing miserably at achieving it.
Let’s start simple. If you follow these three guidelines to get started, you will create a great foundation in developing a diet good for you and your heart.
1. REDUCE BAD FATS/INCORPORATE GOOD FATS:
Translation...bad fats are the trans-fats most commonly found in hydrogenated oils and are found in baked goods, snack crackers, cookies, pie crusts, cakes, and margarine. These raise your bad cholesterol (LDL’s) and lower your good cholesterol (HDL’s) increasing your risk for heart attack and stroke. Animal fat should also be reduced as it can also be harmful. Good fats include both saturated and unsaturated fats, but are plant-based so they act differently in your body. These include avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, chia seeds, fish, and walnuts.
We need fat for many chemical reactions in our body. Dietary fat does not necessarily translate to fat on the body. It’s all about what kind of fat you choose. Avoid low-fat and nonfat dairy and other processed food. It is highly processed and often higher in sugar as a result of taking the fat out. If you bake, the best choice is regular organic butter, used sparingly. Most vegetable oils become rancid if left out and typically contain these trans-fats because they are easy and inexpensive to manufacture. If you simply cannot eliminate animal fats, try to limit your intake to one serving per day (about the size of your fist), and spring for the grass-fed pasture raised variety. It’s worth the investment.
2. OPT FOR WHOLE:
Scour the grocery stores today and you will find predominantly “food product.” These engineered creations contain ingredients that typically include chemical additives, added sugar, added salt, preservatives, artificial coloring, and artificial sweeteners. We are intended and designed to eat natural whole foods. If you are unfamiliar with what a whole food is, they contain only one ingredient. They are ingredients that come directly from the source with no processing. Aristotle put it brilliantly when he said, “The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.” We are a country obsessed with supplements and we love to concentrate every nutrient we come across, promise people it will solve all their problems, and pack it up in a bottle. There are some instances where this may be beneficial, but we absorb nutrients from actual food much better, not to mention you can have serious adverse reactions to taking nutrients in excess. Follow the “5 or less rule”: if there are more than five ingredients (not counting vegetables or fruit ingredients that you can recognize) it’s probably better to pass it up, especially if you cannot pronounce the ingredients.
3. PRIORITIZE RELAXATION:
Like I said before, we all need it, most of us seek it, but few of us achieve it in a beneficial way. However, the cost is great. Chronic stress can lead to a slew of health problems including heart disease. When you initiate the relaxation response appropriately, you shift from your sympathetic nervous system to your parasympathetic nervous system, or “rest and digest.” A few examples of activities that can initiate this response are cardiovascular exercise, deep breathing, yoga and massage therapy, and meditation, but it can be anything that allows you to take a break from the mind and squeeze out some of those feel good endorphins. This will help you sleep better, have more patience with your family, improve immunity, and improve overall life satisfaction and joy. Who doesn’t want more joy?
In summary, the best way to reduce your risk of heart disease is to adapt a primarily vegetarian plant-based diet, incorporate healthy fats and get rid of the unhealthy fats, and practice a healthy dose of relaxation. The Dean Ornish study proved this by placing patients with heart disease on this type of diet while incorporating exercise and relaxation therapies. These patients got off their medications and most were able to completely reverse their disease. Proof: it’s not too late! Our bodies will heal themselves if we give them a chance. Start with these guidelines and take care in knowing your heart will thank you for it. You are worth it, you deserve it, and you CAN do it!
Shawn Clavelle earned her bachelor’s degree in Nursing from the University of Vermont. She earned her certification in Holistic Health Coaching from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. Shawn’s vast clinical experience and knowledge of the healthcare system makes her proficient at helping others design their own treatment plan through structured goal setting and continuous evaluation of progress. Using a holistic approach with a focus on nutrition, she helps uncover the obstacles to good health and provides simple options for making better lifestyle choices.