Guest Column: What does it mean to ‘eat healthy for your heart?’

Published 12:29 pm Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Albert Lea resident Emily Schmidt is a registered dietitian at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea. She enjoys writing,

Emily Schmidt

cooking and spending time with her son and family.

Each year, February brings awareness to heart health with American Heart Month. This is important and pertinent given that one out of every three people in the United States dies from heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. There are many important lifestyle factors that affect our heart health, including nutrition. You may have heard that you need to “eat healthy for your heart,” but what exactly does that mean?

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Saturated fat. This type of dietary fat, which is solid at room temperature, can increase levels of unhealthy cholesterol if eaten in excess. When LDL or “bad” cholesterol becomes elevated in the blood, plaque can build up in arteries, contributing to heart disease. Food sources of saturated fat include meat, dairy, eggs, butter and tropical oils such as coconut oil. Although these foods are fine in moderation, it’s recommended to limit saturated fats to less than about 20 grams per day. The best way to do so is through portion control and limiting heavily processed, convenience and fast foods.

Trans fat, or partially hydrogenated oils. This used to be a commonly used fat in many heavily processed foods such as stick margarine, pastries and non-dairy creamer; however, as of June the FDA labeled this type of fat as unsafe for health. The majority of food manufacturers has eliminated this ingredient from their products; however, check food labels just in case (both the “trans fat” on the nutrition facts label as well as “partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients section).

Sodium (AKA salt). Although required for our health in small amounts, excess sodium causes our cardiovascular system to work much harder. This can lead to elevated blood pressure or swelling/edema depending on certain health conditions. The average person should limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams daily, and if you have any heart health issues, it’s best to stay below 2,000 mg daily. Your best bet for sodium reduction is to read nutrition facts labels, increase fresh foods and cooking at home, and cook more with herbs, spices and other low- or sodium-free seasonings instead of salt.

Refined carbohydrates and sugar. These are found in white bread and other refined grains, desserts, sugary beverages such as soda, energy drinks and juices, and many other foods. Don’t confuse these less healthy carbohydrates with healthy carbs, however. Whole grains, fruit, beans, vegetables, milk and yogurt are all nutritious sources despite their higher carbohydrate count. Of course, moderation is still important but carbohydrates should not be eliminated for a heart healthy diet.


Soluble fiber. This type of fiber helps your body get rid of unhealthy cholesterol. The types of plant-based foods that contain soluble fiber tend to soak up or absorb water easier. For instance, foods high in this nutrient include oatmeal or oat bran cereal, beans (such as black or navy), peas, nuts and seeds including ground flaxseed, and mangos, dried figs, Brussels sprouts, and other fruits and vegetables. Another perk of this form of fiber is that it digests more slowly in the body, helping reduce spikes in blood glucose and causing you to feel full longer.

Unsaturated fats. These are the “healthy” fats. Fat is not necessarily bad; the more important factor is the quality. Unsaturated fats, either poly- or monounsaturated, are typically liquid at room temperature. These fats have been shown by research to improve cholesterol levels and decrease inflammation in the body. Food sources include fatty fish and seafood, nuts and seeds, nut butters such as peanut or almond butter, avocados, soft tub spreads, salad dressings or mayonnaise made with unsaturated fats; and olive, canola and peanut oils.

Plant-based foods. There are so many small nutrients in foods — vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, antioxidants and more — that are often overlooked when heart healthy eating is recommended. Consume a variety of plant-based foods include beans and other legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and plant-based oils such as olive or peanut oil.

Final advice: Don’t forget that heart healthy eating can still be enjoyable.