3 Essential Nutrients for a Heart-Healthy Holiday Season
With the New Year right around the corner, health is predictably at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Soon we’ll be lacing up our running shoes, buying gym memberships, and making resolutions to live a healthier lifestyle. The irony is, with the stress of the holidays and the onslaught of seasonal treats and traditions, it can be easy to forget that it’s never too early, or too late, to make health a priority.
And when it comes to long-term wellness, nothing is more crucial than protecting your heart and cardiovascular system. The cardiovascular system is responsible for delivering oxygen and nutrients to cells and organs all over the body, and as such, it is particularly sensitive to the dietary choices we make, with some foods conferring protective benefits. So, as you navigate work parties, friendly gatherings, and family celebrations this holiday season, be sure to also include food choices with the following key nutrients alongside the treats. Your heart, and your health, will thank you.
1. Soluble Fiber
You’ve probably heard that increasing fiber in your diet is beneficial for a wide variety of reasons, from preventing constipation to keeping you full after meals. What you may not know is that there are different types of fiber, and one type, soluble fiber, is particularly beneficial for your heart.
Soluble fiber earns its name by its ability to dissolve in water, forming a gel-like substance in your intestines. Not only can this help to slow digestion and manage blood sugar levels, but it can also bind to cholesterol molecules in your gut, preventing their re-absorption into the blood. This, in turn, lowers your overall blood cholesterol, a key marker for cardiovascular risk.
Soluble fiber can be found in a wide variety of different plant-based foods. Some of the most concentrated sources include whole grains such as oats and barley, legumes such as black beans and lentils, and many different fruits and vegetables. Current dietary guidelines recommend eating between 21 – 38 grams of fiber per day, with most experts recommending approximately one-fourth, or 5 – 10 grams, coming from soluble fiber.
**We recommend making the transition to eating more fiber over several weeks. This will help avoid some of the bloating that can be common in the early stages, as your digestive tract (and the microbiome in your gut) adjusts. So start increasing slowly, at one meal per day.
Tips for increasing soluble fiber foods in your diet this holiday season:
- Start your day off with a nutritious breakfast. Especially if you know you will be attending a gathering or eating out later on. Options like overnight oats, western or vegetable omelets, or Greek yogurt topped with fresh fruit can pack in beneficial fiber and protein first thing in the morning to start your day off on a nutritious note.
- Add beans to a holiday chili, or combine them into meatballs or hamburger beef mix. Black bean salsa or red lentil hummus make excellent appetizers.
- Bake cookies, muffins, and breads using oats, flaxseeds, and whole fruit as ingredients.
2. Omega-3 fats
Omega-3s are a type of unsaturated fat found in cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, cod, trout, and tuna. Because our bodies are not capable of making these fats, we must get them from foods we eat. Omega-3s are a critical component of cell membranes in the body, and also serve as important building blocks for hormones that help with blood clotting, inflammation, and blood vessel relaxation. While research into the positive benefits of omega-3s is ongoing, they are thought to protect the heart through two main mechanisms:
- Eating more fish can offset meat and dairy intake, and the saturated fat that comes with it.
- In large enough amounts, omega-3s help reduce triglycerides, a form of fat in the blood that can increase the risk for heart disease.
While cold-water fish are the most recognizable source in the diet, other food contributors include:
- Flax seeds, chia seeds, and Hemp Hearts
- Canola Oil
- Omega-3 Fortified Eggs
- Omega-3 Supplements such as Fish Oil
At this time, no set recommendations have been established for omega-3 intake. Experts such as the American Heart Association recommend consuming at least 2 servings of fatty fish* per week. For people with heart disease, that threshold is likely higher. Speak with your provider to find out if an omega-3 supplement is right for you.
*Mercury-content is the main concern when increasing fish in the diet. To avoid issues, choose fish low on the food chain more often, such as salmon, anchovies, sardines, cod, and canned light tuna. Limit portions and frequency of larger, predatory fish such as shark, sword fish, and king mackerel.
Tips for increasing omega-3 fats in your diet this holiday season:
- Preference choosing fish entrees* when dining out with friends and family, particularly if you don’t normally cook fish out at home.
- Add walnuts to baked goods and yogurt parfaits, or prepare an apple-walnut salad with balsamic vinaigrette as an appetizer for a party. For a simple but flavorful single bite dessert, try candied walnuts or walnut-stuffed dates.
- Experiment with nutritious dessert recipes, such as Eggnog chia pudding.
3. Plant-Based Unsaturated Fats
“Unsaturated fat” is a large umbrella term, best understood in light of its counterpart, saturated fat. Saturated fats are typically found in animal products such as meat and dairy (and coconut, an exception to the rule); unsaturated fats are predominantly found in plant-based foods, such as avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils.
While differences do exist between foods that contain mono-unsaturated vs. poly-unsaturated fats, both are considered beneficial alternatives for heart health.
Research shows that replacing sources of saturated fat with unsaturated fat, regardless of type, can have a beneficial effect on reducing levels of LDL cholesterol, a major risk factor for heart disease.
Current guidelines recommend getting 20 – 35% of your daily calories from fat, with less than 10% coming from saturated fat sources. For a 2000 calorie diet, this would mean limiting saturated fat to about 22 grams per day.
Tips for replacing saturated fats with plant-based unsaturated fats this holiday season:
- Use plant-based oils as a healthier alternative to cooking with butter, ghee, coconut oil, or lard. Olive oil is a particularly potent source of antioxidants, and ideal for baking and sauteing at lower temperatures. For cooking at higher temperatures, avocado oil and expeller-pressed canola oil are excellent alternatives.
- Try making baked goods using substitutes for butter. This can cut down on saturated fats while retaining moisture and texture. However, trial and error is often required to dial in a recipe. See here and here for ideas on ingredients and amounts for substitution.
- Select pasta dishes made with red sauce or pesto over cream or butter-based sauces (alfredo, vodka, marsala, scampi, etc.)
- Choose dressings and sauces utilizing avocado, cashews, or yogurt as a base, such as spicy cashew dressing from Trader Joe’s, or avocado green goddess.
- When choosing your proteins, consider the “Leg Rule”: foods with fewer legs tend to be lower in saturated fat. For example:
- 4 legs: Beef, Pork, Lamb
- 2 legs: Turkey, Chicken, Poultry
- 0 legs: Fish, Nuts, Seeds, Beans, Legumes
Are you interested in a more tailored approach to improving your dietary habits? Call Men’s Health Boston today to schedule a personalized nutrition consultation*.
*Nutrition consultations are covered under most major insurance plans. For clients whose insurance will not cover nutrition services, see our discounted packages here.