Many of the foods in a standard American diet simply aren’t good for the heart. Instead of opting for a nutrient-poor food choice, why not reach for foods that taste just as good—or better—and are also good for you? Better yet, why not make choices that directly benefit the heart?
Here are seven of my favorite heart-healthy food substitutes:
Substitute: Canola or olive oil
Butter is called for in recipes ranging from breakfast casseroles to after-dinner desserts, but because it’s high in saturated fat and cholesterol, it’s best to limit your intake. Instead, opt for canola oil (high-heat cooking) or olive oil (good for low-to-medium-heat cooking or sautéing). While both still contain fats and should be consumed in moderation, the type of fat in these oils may actually be good for your heart. The oils may be more beneficial than saturated fat animal fats, like butter, for your cholesterol levels.
Food: White flour
Substitute: Whole wheat flour (can add rolled oats)
White, fine-grain flour is not the natural state of ground wheat—it’s actually a result of processing. During refining, much of the vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein are lost, and the flour is treated with chemicals to make it white. This process turns the once-heart-healthy wheat into an ingredient with very little nutritional value. Instead, choose whole grains; the USDA recommends that at least half of your grains should be whole grains, but more is better. Along with other health benefits, the fiber in whole grains supports endothelial function, which in turn, supports healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels. (See “Why Focus on Endothelial Health?” for more on the endothelium and why it’s critical to maintaining a healthy heart.)
I’m in favor of the Mediterranean diet, which encourages consumption of fatty fish like salmon and limits red meats. Salmon is full of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that consuming large quantities of Omega-3s EPA and DHA, which are abundant in fish, helps to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system. This may work through maintaining cholesterol and triglyceride levels already within a normal range.
Food: Iceberg or romaine lettuce
Substitute: Dark, leafy greens like kale, spinach or arugula
Bland lettuces like iceberg or romaine are often used in salads, but they actually contain very little nutritional value. Instead, I like to eat dark, leafy greens like kale, spinach or arugula because they’re loaded with nutrients and taste. These vegetables have a beneficial range of vitamins and minerals, including fiber, antioxidants and other heart-healthy nutrients.
Substitute: Herbs and spices
Salt may taste good, but excess amounts are not good for your heart. While it’s true that people need sodium in their diets, there is so much already in food that there often isn’t a need to add any while preparing a meal. Breads, cereals, cured meats, processed cheeses, and even raw chicken breasts injected with salt water can all be high in sodium. One way to reduce sodium intake is to limit the amount of processed foods you buy and eat; another is to cook using herbs and spices. Turmeric, garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, peppermint and cinnamon are all great options that add a lot of flavor and some phytonutrients, while reducing the need for salt.
Food: Milk chocolate
Substitute: Dark chocolate
A chocolate indulgence in moderation can be good for your heart—when it’s dark chocolate, at least. Milk chocolate is more processed than dark, which depletes some of the nutritional value; it also has more saturated fat. Dark chocolate contains heart-healthy flavanols that some research suggests may have an antioxidant effect in the body. Flavanols may also help support overall vascular function, but more research is needed to fully understand their benefits.
Food: Refined sugar
Substitute: Dates, whole fruits, apple sauce
Refined sugar, such as high-fructose corn syrup and regular “table sugar,” has been isolated from its whole food source. That means it is pulled away from the food’s original nutritional value, leaving a sweet calorie source with little or no additional nutritional benefit. In excess, consuming refined sugars may have a detrimental impact on weight and overall health. While it’s common to focus on desserts as loaded with sugar, I encourage you to check the labels on sauces, salad dressings, cereals, beverages and other packaged foods. You may be surprised by what you find.
To limit sugar intake, start by eating more whole, unprocessed foods. Dates, whole fruits and apple sauce are good options to add sweetness when cooking or baking. While each of these foods offers important nutrients like fiber and potassium, perhaps the greatest benefit for the heart is what you’re not eating: refined sugars that offer no other nutrients.