Your doctor keeps telling you to lose 10, 20, 50 pounds “or else …”. For some people, weight loss is the right first step, especially if it’s something they already wanted to work on. But for others, this feels like a bumpy road already travelled. The good news is that weight loss doesn’t have to be the only way to help your heart. By adding more heart healthy foods to your meals, you can quickly see changes in your heart health … with or without weight loss.
What is heart disease and why weight might play a role
Let’s start off by understanding what heart disease is and how weight might play a role.
Heart disease is an umbrella term that describes all the conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. Some common types of heart disease include coronary artery disease, afib, angina, atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries), stroke, heart attack and heart failure.
Having a higher weight, in addition to a larger waist circumference, can increase your risk of heart diseases or stroke. But it’s a little more complicated than saying someone just doesn’t eat well or exercise enough.
For people carrying extra weight though, losing as little as 5% of it can help with health risks. To put this into perspective, if you weigh 300lbs, losing 15lbs could show you some heart health benefits. This of course is not to say that it will feel easy to lose the weight, or keep it off. But for some people this feels like a much more achievable goal to start with than say, 50lbs.
Heart health is a concern for many reasons
Having a healthy ticker is obviously important.
Even if you don’t think heart disease runs in your family, there are many reasons to think about it as your body gets older. Other health or age-related conditions can impact heart health, including diabetes, hormones / menopause, kidney disease, carrying extra weight around your waist and having high blood pressure.
Another thing to consider is that for some heart conditions, you might not feel symptoms. This is especially true for high blood pressure or cholesterol levels. As well, if you’re a woman, your symptoms of heart disease will likely be different than those of a man. You can read more about the Unique Risk Factors in Women, from the Heart & Stroke website.
Just another reason to go for those regular checkups, especially after 40.
With age, comes higher risks of heart disease. Of course, getting older doesn’t mean that heart disease is inevitable. But because heart diseases can take years to develop, paying attention to your heart health sooner than later is a great idea. Eating more heart healthy foods is one way that you can not only protect your heart for the future but also feel great today.
Heart health without weight loss
Like I mentioned, it’s possible to have better heart health by changing your eating, even without weight loss.
Studies have found that increasing specific heart healthy foods improved heart health lab work values even if participants didn’t lose much, or any, weight.
I’ve seen this with clients also. Their follow-up blood cholesterol levels improved, blood pressure lowered, energy levels and sleep quality improved, waist size decreased even after just a month or two.
By the 3-4 month mark, they say they aren’t noticing the changes much anymore! This is when they report feeling like it’s easier to make heart healthy eating choices and that habits are formed. Many people have some weight loss by this time, feel they’re heading in the right direction and that it all feels do-able with the strategies they’ve learned.
Popular diets with heart healthy foods
As I’ve talked about in other articles, there are a variety of heart healthy eating patterns that have been proven to work.
Both the Mediterranean and DASH eating patterns are popular and effective for helping people take back control over their heart health.
These 2 eating patterns have many similarities in that they generally suggest
- Higher fibre
- More fruits and vegetables
- Lean animal or plant-based proteins
- Less salt, added sugar and saturated fats
- Choosing whole grains
Portfolio diet for lowering cholesterol
This is one though that you might not have heard much about. I think of it as an add-on to the heart healthy eating pattern you’re already following.
Developed by Dr. D. Jenkins out of Toronto, these heart healthy foods are known to specifically lower LDL-cholesterol levels. One of the benefits of adding these foods is that you don’t need to take this as “all-or-nothing” – each one of them can help to lower cholesterol by about 5-10%. That means if you are not willing to try soy, for example, that you can add the others and still expect to see results.
Heart healthy foods in the Portfolio diet
- Plant-based proteins with special attention to soy protein. Yes, this includes tofu … but doesn’t have to! Soy milk is an easy way to get in some of that soy protein and is usually fortified with calcium and vitamins B12 and D, something to consider if you’re replacing regular milk. Another important point here is to read the food labels and watch for the amount of salt if you’re choosing a plant-based meat alternative from the freezer isle.
- Plant sterols. This refers to the fat found in some vegetables. There are an increasing number of grocery products have these added to them to help people get more, such as some margarine brands.
- Nuts. Good news, any kind of nut has benefit and a small portion is all you need!
- Viscous fibre. This is the kind of fibre that is sticky and found in foods like oatmeal, barley or eggplant.
As you can see, there are some common themes is all of this, but ONE that stands out the most. More plants! Again, with all changes, this might feel hard for you. Check out this past article for some ideas if adding veggies in your family’s meals is a struggle – Man food: 5 Tips to Help your Husband’s Health.
Trust in your knowledge of heart healthy foods
My guess is that you’re not new to reading about heart healthy foods and that you actually DO know what to eat. Give yourself permission to trust that you do know what heart healthy foods are.
There is no lack of health-related information on the internet.
It’s this over-abundance of information online that is actually the biggest struggle for some people! I hear so often, “I just don’t even know where to start. I’ve read so much and it feels like too much. I’m at the point where I can’t even do anything because I feel so confused.”
Reset and organize your plan with heart healthy foods
If you’re feeling like you don’t know where to start, here are some suggestions to reset and organize your plan.
- Take a deep breath and remove yourself from the situation for at least a day. Take a break from social media, from online searches, from thinking about your ‘diet’.
- Put aside all the things you’ve heard from others or read online. You might come back to it later, but for now, put it aside.
- Sit down with a pen and paper, write out what you think ‘healthy eating’ is. I’m not talking about superfoods or specialty health food store stuff here. But perhaps you’ll think about whole foods, foods from the farm and foods in a simple state. Describe how your eating should make you feel, how food should fit into your life, what foods you consider to be healthy, what your thoughts are about diets your friends are following (positive and negative … let it all out), etc.
- Think about how you’re eating now – how closely does your eating match this idea of healthy eating you have? Are there any foods you would consider swapping so they are heart healthy foods? What are some usual choices that might be getting in the way of you reaching your goals? What is 1 thing you can start with this week?
- Download this free Meal-Planning Starter Guide with a meal-planning template and tips to get started. Think about a typical week for you and plan out a week’s worth of meals that include some heart healthy foods you reflected on in step 4. You don’t have to change your usual way of eating for each meal in the week – but how would it feel to focus on 3-5 meals in the week?
Simple changes CAN have big benefit on heart health
For some people this is about making small, simple – but strategic – changes. Focusing on the little changes you can make but that will make the biggest impact.
Change can be hard! If you’ve been recently diagnosed with a new health condition, you might be feeling like it’s time to buckle down and pay attention to your health before worse things happen. Which, for some people, feels like a big burden or like all the fun is over.
Getting more heart healthy foods into your day can be easier than you think. Making a change to your eating DOES NOT mean “going on a diet”. Gone are the days of saying “if it tastes good, spit it out”.
The changes you make do not have to be big or complicated. If weight loss is part of your plan, it doesn’t even have to be huge to help your heart. Starting with one thing today – something you can stick with – is more important than planning to start once you know you can do it all and do it perfectly.
If you’re ready to work on eating more heart healthy foods for taking back control of your heart health or for heart disease prevention, you’re not alone!
People often tell me, when we first start working together, about the times in the past when they’ve lost the weight … but that it all came back and then some. It wasn’t sustainable, they fell off the wagon, life just got in the way and they couldn’t keep up with the energy that ‘dieting’ took out of them.
Did you know I have a program that gives people a solution to this cycle?
It’s called the Nourish your Weight Group Online Program, helping others just like you learn the most effective changes to make along with strategies you can use for years to come. Strategic changes that quickly feel like habit and just part of your life. Tools that lead to life-long change and don’t keep you tied to paying for a monthly membership or buying costly products.
I’d love to talk more if this sounds interesting to you. You can either send me a message or book a free Q&A chat with me so we can review what you want help with and if this program is the best match for your success!
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on helping people take back control of their health & weight … before it feels like their health controls their life. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.