Heart disease and stroke kill five times more Canadian women each year than breast cancer. Research suggests that a healthy diet could prevent nearly half of such premature deaths — but what exactly is a heart-healthy diet?
The Heart and Stroke Foundation has tried to eliminate guesswork by endorsing several eating styles, all of which incorporate a wide variety of foods. While all of these eating plans have slightly different aims, they all help control blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and body weight, and reduce the risk of conditions ranging from heart disease and Alzheimer’s to cancer, according to Carol Dombrow, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
There are options to suit nearly every palate — if you can’t imagine giving up steak or cheese, for instance, or prefer meatless meals. Here’s a brief run-down of each, as well as a map to creating a customized heart-healthy eating plan.
Originally devised to help reduce blood pressure (hence the name, Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension), the DASH diet emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, lean meats, beans, nuts, and heart-healthy fats and oils (such as olive and canola). And while there’s room for some salt, sweets, and added sugars, these are eaten sparingly.Subscribe To Our Newsletters — And Kick Your Health Into High Gear
Most of the foods that are included in abundance in the DASH diet are also featured prominently in the Mediterranean eating plan. The differences? Cheese is included in moderation, as is wine (no more than one glass per day for women) for those who enjoy it, and olive oil, which is the main source of fat, apart from fish, nuts and seeds. In the ‘limit’ column: salt, sweets (fruit is the first choice for dessert) and red meat (roughly two four-ounce servings per week).
A variation of the Mediterranean diet aimed at protecting brain function, the MIND diet involves eating a set number of servings of beans and nuts, along with specific types of vegetables (leafy greens), fruits (berries) and fish (fatty varieties such as mackerel). Again, wine is included, and extra-virgin olive oil is the fat of choice. The list of ‘once-in-a-while’ foods is also similar to the Mediterranean diet, but expanded to include butter and stick margarine (which contains more trans fat than tub margarine) and breaded, fried and fast foods.
This eating style is similar to the DASH and Mediterranean diets, minus the meat, poultry and fish. In addition to other sources of plant protein (such as beans and whole grains), it can include soy-based foods such as tofu and tempeh.
The above diets are only templates — you can tailor a heart-healthy eating plan to your own taste buds and budget using simpler guidelines. According to Dombrow, the key to a heart-healthy diet is eating more fruits and vegetables, choosing foods high in fibre, cutting back on salt, opting for healthy fats, curbing added sugars, and eating moderate portions. Here are four simple strategies that can help.
- Think plant-forward. “That’s not to say you can’t eat meat or animal products — just that the centrepiece of the meal has changed,” stresses Rosie Schwartz, a registered dietitian and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide. That can mean paring portion sizes, using small amounts of animal foods to add flavour to dishes like casseroles and soups, and adding a few more meatless meals to your regular recipe cycle.
- Focus on real food. Spend the bulk of your grocery budget on whole and minimally processed foods (think canned tomatoes and beans, and frozen berries and broccoli). Ultra-processed foods (which include items like most packaged snacks, frozen meals, pizzas and burgers — yes, even the veggie varieties) are typically low in nutrients, says Schwartz, and high in empty calories, unhealthy fats, salt and added sugar.
- Scratch-cook more often. “It doesn’t have to be complicated,” says Dombrow. “It just takes a bit of planning. Even if you have a repertoire of five simple things you can make when you get home from work, that’s great.” (Here’s a three-week menu to get you started.)
- Emphasize enjoyment. “Focus on the foods you should be including, and finding easy ways to incorporate them,” Schwartz advises. For example, tossing together canned tomatoes, fresh garlic, basil and extra-virgin olive oil to make a quick pasta sauce isn’t just healthy, “it tastes delicious,” she says. “The pleasure of the meal, and making foods taste good is really key.”