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Five Steps to Heart-Healthy Eating for Women

Written by: Norine Khalil, MSc RD

In addition to February being the month of l-o-v-e, it’s also Heart Health month – a topic that I also happen to love (okay, I’ll stop with the love now).

Cardiovascular diseases are the leading causes of death in Canadian adults. Heart health can be impacted by so many different factors including but not limited to: age, sex, family history, and lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet and exercise. According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada, women specifically are under-diagnosed and under-treated for heart disease. As important as it is for the healthcare system to better understand women’s health, including the unique set of cardiovascular risks we face (e.g. complications in pregnancy, menopause, hormonal imbalances, etc.), it’s also time for women to learn what we can do to protect ourselves and optimize our heart health.

Focus on Fruits and Vegetables…with a side of extra Vegetables

We all know by now that fruits and vegetable are important for a healthy, balanced diet. But how much should we really be eating? And, does it matter whether it’s fruit or vegetables? Short Answer: It does matter. I recommend consuming at least 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily to ensure that you are consuming adequate amounts of free-radical fighting antioxidants, which can protect against damage to the heart and other areas of the body. Having said that, I also suggest that you aim for a 3:1 ratio of vegetables to fruit – meaning, more emphasis on vegetables! This helps to ensure a balanced amount of carbohydrates in the diet without feeling like you’ve had to give up “nature’s candy”. After all – it’s all about balance.

What’s a serving? One cup of raw vegetables or half a cup cooked. For fruits, aim for 1 medium size fruit (e.g. apple, pear), 1/2 banana, or 1 cup of chopped pineapple, melon, mango, etc.

Fiber is your Friend

There are two main types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Sources of soluble fiber include: oats, legumes, apples, citrus fruits, vegetables, and psyllium husk. Insoluble fiber can be found in beans, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.

Fiber plays a key role in lowering the risk of heart disease. When combined with the reduction of saturated fats (i.e. fats found in animal products like meat, eggs and dairy), trans fats, and cholesterol, a diet high in soluble fiber has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and decrease cardiovascular disease risk.

So how can you ensure you’re getting enough fiber in your diet?

  • Aim to eat a minimum of 5 servings of vegetables per day

  • Include 2-4 servings of fruit per day

  • Incorporate more legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas) into everyday meals like chili, soups, stews, and salads

  • Add 1-2 tbsp of flaxseed, chia seed or hemp seed in your diet daily

  • Include a serving of whole grains or complex carbohydrates 2-3x/day (e.g. brown rice, quinoa, oats, barley, sweet potato)

  • If you’re not allergic, include 1/4 cup of nuts in your diet daily

  • Look for foods that contain at least 3 grams of fiber per serving

Watch that Sugar

Fats have always been public enemy #1 when it comes to the heart health discussion – but processed and refined sugars are worth mentioning as well. Studies have recently shown an association between diets high in sugar and the risk of heart disease. Not only can large amounts of sugar contribute to inflammation, which is associated with heart disease, but excess sugar in the body puts extra stress on the liver – where sugar that is not needed for storage or energy is converted into fat. This may increase the risk of fatty liver disease over time which can further increase the risk of heart disease.

To be clear, this is specifically processed and refined sugar – so those found naturally in fruits and starchy vegetables are not to be feared. The best way to decrease intake of refined sugars is to limit intake of processed foods such as juice, soda, candy, chocolate, and packaged snacks and bars. I recommend looking for products that contain no more than 8 grams of sugar per serving on the Nutrition Facts Table as a great start!

What about Salt?

Believe it or not, the saltshaker is the least of our problems when it comes to sodium. A diet high in sodium may increase the risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure, which falls under the umbrella of cardiovascular disease. North Americans consume two to three times the amount of sodium recommended per day – and that’s largely due to the highly processed foods we consume. The upper limit of sodium per day in Canada is 2,300 mg/day. Guess what? That’s ONE teaspoon of salt. Read that again.

When you’re purchasing products at the grocery store, start paying attention to the sodium content and you’ll notice how quickly 2,300 mg adds up. Bread products, pastries, soups, frozen foods, and salty snacks can all send your sodium levels sky-high.

So what can you do to limit salt?

  • Aim to purchase products that contain no more than 300 mg of sodium per serving

  • Limit your intake of frozen foods or foods purchased outside the home to 1x/week

  • Use other herbs and spices when cooking to reduce the need for salt

Give Love to Fats

Yep, you heard me. Fats are not evil, my friends. In fact, they are very very important in a heart-healthy diet if you choose them wisely. Mono- and poly-unsaturated fats play a key role in improving your cholesterol profile by increasing your protective cholesterol, or HDL, and lowering your LDL cholesterol. Omega 3 fats also have anti-inflammatory properties which may be protective for heart health. Including 2-3 servings of unsaturated fats in the diet while limiting consumption of saturated fats can help to push your fat profile in a protective direction.

  • Use olive oil, avocado oil, or sesame oil at home

  • Include one serving of nuts and seeds daily

  • Choose naturally leaner protein options such as fish, chicken, turkey and legumes.

  • Include avocado, olives, nuts or seeds with snacks or meals

  • Limit red meat to 1x/week

  • Watch your portions of high fat dairy products like cheeses. One serving is one ounce!

Keep your heart healthy and happy this February, friends! Please remember, your body is unique and your recommendations may look different based on your personal health. If you need more support with your diet and cardiovascular health, feel free to reach out to book an appointment.

Happy Love Month!


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