- Eat your veggies.
We have long known that eating more plant-based foods decreases our risk for developing heart disease and type 2 Diabetes. Look no further than Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s whole food, plant-based diet research to reverse heart disease and more famously Dr. Dean Ornish’s research and own version of a plant-based diet. Even the Mediterranean diet touts more fruit and vegetables and yes, Canada’s Food Guide does too.
All of these diets are based on many principle findings from research such as the massive EPIC-Heart study that showed an association between consumption of vegetables (& fruit) and a reduced risk of heart disease fatalities. Other studies have shown decreased levels of lousy LDL cholesterol, better blood fat levels, better blood pressure numbers, better blood sugar management and overall better weight control.
So, why isn’t everyone doing this? Good question. In many cases, it’s because plant-based only diets are harder to transition to from an omnivorous diet. The bottom line is that most of us could stand to eat more vegetables and we all know they’re good for us. So, start by finding a way to bump up the veggie content in your diet. Current evidence recommends 400 grams or about 5 servings (1 serving= ½ cup of cooked veg or 1 cup of salad) of vegetables a day. We’re just as happy when our clients and people we talk to are enthusiastic about eating more vegetables and not necessarily reinventing their entire diet. Yes, we want you to love veggies – even with a bit of dip.
- Skip fruit juice and eat the fruit.
While 100% fruit juice is full of nutrients like vitamin C, potassium and disease-fighting antioxidants, it lacks fibre. Fibre helps slow the rate of absorption and contributes to a feeling of satiety (fullness). Eating pieces of fruit will provide that valuable fibre without sacrificing taste and will ease up on the number of calories you consume. Consider this: 1 cup of orange juice = 150 calories compared with a medium-sized orange which will run you less than 50. That’s a lot more treadmill time, if you go for juice. Pick pieces of fruit over juice, it’ll give you more bang for your calorie buck.
- Put fish on your menu, regularly.
Most of you are familiar with the American Heart Association recommendation stating we aim for two servings of fish per week (each serving is 3.5 ounces or ¾ cup flaked fish). This allows you to get adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, crucial unsaturated fats found in large amounts in cold water, fatty fish.
Omega-3’s have been shown in studies to improve a lot of important cardiac markers including decreasing the build-up of cholesterol on blood vessel walls, improving levels of blood fats called triglycerides, decreasing inflammation and decreasing the risk of arrhythmias (altered heart rhythms). This is a big deal!
We encourage people to include fish in their diet on a regular basis (Fish Friday, anyone?), which includes fresh, frozen or canned fish. Just avoid the breaded or battered frozen fish sticks, which are notoriously low in omega-3’s. For the non-fish eaters, include plant-based omega-3’s, such as flax seed (ground flax is better than whole seeds), chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and soy-based foods like tofu, edamame and soybean oil.
- Embrace legumes.
This is a you-love-‘em-or-hate-‘em kind of food. Legumes are protein-rich, plant-based foods that include dried beans and lentils. These aren’t your green and yellow beans, but rather kidney beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), black-eyed peas and navy beans. Lentils come in many colours and can be a wonderful base for soup or Indian dishes like dhal.
These little powerhouse foods have been shown consistently to decrease the risk for heart disease largely because of its significant cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre content and its veritable lack of saturated fat. A very recent meta-analysis reviewed 27 studies and found nuts and legumes did not increase risk of heart disease, stroke or diabetes, but in fact decreased risk.
We think that you should take some time to get to know legumes a little better. Their low saturated fat, high fibre, high protein features alone should convince you. So, pull out a cookbook or search the internet for inspiration on how to include legumes in your diet and reap the benefits they can provide.
- Eggs are allowed!
Any time we hear about lowering cholesterol, most of us automatically think of eggs’ high cholesterol content. This has been a long propagated belief: that eggs cause high blood levels of cholesterol.
Let us be the ones to set the record straight – they are not directly responsible for bumping up our bad LDL cholesterol levels. Newer research has shown a stronger relationship between saturated fat and trans fat in the diet impacting the body’s cholesterol levels compared to high cholesterol containing foods. Curious, isn’t it? It would seem logical that cholesterol raises cholesterol – but it doesn’t.
This now means that eggs are back on the “OK to eat” list. Interestingly, eggs contain a very low amount of saturated fat – about 3.3g in 2 eggs (& zero trans fat). Compare those numbers to the 10 g of saturated fat (& 1.5 g trans fat) in a paltry (100 grams or 3.5 ounces) portion of rib eye steak.
What is still confusing is what impact, if any, eggs have on our heart health? This has been hotly debated in the scientific literature with little consensus on the topic. Here’s what we know so far: there doesn’t seem to be a relationship between the number of eggs eaten and risk for heart disease (though preliminary studies show a large number of eggs consumed may pose a stronger risk for developing diabetes, but the jury’s still out on that). In large scale studies, eating an egg a day in healthy populations was not associated with a higher risk of heart disease or stroke. So, we will have to wait and see if newer evidence emerges to help us determine and or change our current egg recommendations. For now, you can happily include a moderate number of whole eggs (including the yolk) in your diet (excluding eggs in baking) but be sure to watch the less healthy add-ons like bacon, sausage, hash browns or Hollandaise sauce.