Proper nutrition plays an important role in overall health and wellness. It is also a powerful tool for building a resilient cardiovascular system and battling heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. Created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, National Nutrition Month in March aims to highlight the importance of making informed food choices and developing healthy eating habits.
Anabel Facemire, MD, FACC, a cardiologist with Dignity Health Medical Group — Sierra Nevada, shares important nutrition reminders that can contribute to good health and lower your risk for heart disease.
Importance of Good Nutrition
Healthy and balanced nutrition is essential to a long life and reduces the chance of developing serious health conditions. According to the CDC, individuals who maintain a healthy diet not only live longer, but are at lower risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. For those with chronic illnesses, healthy eating can help prevent complications and even reverse these conditions.
A healthy diet is crucial to managing one’s risk of heart disease. Coronary artery disease is one of the most common forms of heart disease and is caused by plaque buildup and inflammation in the wall of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Over time, plaque buildup causes the inside of the arteries to narrow. The arterial lining can also become inflamed due to diabetes, elevated stress or poor diet. These conditions can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Healthy eating is one of the main ways to prevent this from occurring, and can help maintain healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels, all of which lower the risk for heart disease and heart attacks.
“Food is medicine. We have three opportunities a day to give our body the tools it needs to fight plaque buildup and inflammation, so we need to make good choices,” says Dr. Facemire. “Fresh, minimally processed food is best. Cooked and raw vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fruits, nuts and seeds are the building blocks your body needs to function, repair and heal.”
Small Changes Make a Big Difference
Implementing small changes into your eating habits is an easy way to maintain optimal health and keep cardiovascular disease and other illnesses at bay.
Start at Home
Dr. Facemire recommends evaluating what you’re eating on a day-to-day basis to identify where you can make adjustments. One easy swap could be opting to cook food at home, rather than going out to eat. Restaurant meals typically contain higher amounts of sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, and overall calories than home-cooked meals. It’s especially important to reduce your intake of these if you’re at risk for conditions like heart disease.
Growing your own food is also a great way to ensure healthy options are available to you. Dr. Facemire encourages everyone who has space to grow their own vegetables. For those with limited space, she suggests growing herbs or vegetables in planters or window boxes.
Start Your Day With a Nutritious Breakfast
Dr. Facemire recommends avoiding the quick bagel and coffee for breakfast. Instead, opt for a large, nutritious meal first thing in the morning. Eat a moderate sized lunch and a smaller dinner that can be easily digestible because we typically become more sedentary in the evening. Our bodies repair and renew during sleep. Having a big meal in the evening makes our body shift it’s primary focus to digestion, instead of restoring our body at night.
For breakfast, try incorporating whole grains, fresh fruits and a lean protein like egg whites or beans. If you find yourself struggling to incorporate these heart-healthy ingredients into your breakfast, smoothies can be a tasty, easy way to consume important nutrients..
Lunch and dinner should include cooked or raw vegetables and legumes like beans or lentils for fiber, which helps prolong the feeling of fullness. Eating foods high in fiber and low in saturated and trans fat can help prevent high cholesterol, a common precursor to heart disease. For those with a sweet tooth, reach for a piece of fruit instead of processed dessert options like ice cream.
“Focus on incorporating small, healthy choices into everyday meals, rather than restricting the foods you enjoy”, says Dr. Facemire. “Don’t get trapped in ‘this food is good’ versus ‘this food is bad.’ Have dessert once a week if you truly enjoy it!”
When it comes to your overall health, what you eat matters. The good news is, making healthy food choices and incremental adjustments to your diet is an easy and impactful way to lower the risk of serious health problems and heart disease.
Look for areas of improvement within your diet and take simple actions to get started on a journey to better nutrition:
- Always choose items from the produce section when grocery shopping
- Cook and meal-prep at home more often than eating out
- Plant a garden to help incorporate more fresh produce into your diet
- Start the day with a nutritious breakfast and make it the largest meal of the day
“Invest in your health,” Dr. Facemire says. “Change doesn’t happen in one day, so start small, be consistent and build new habits as you go. When you look at your plate of food, think ‘how am I helping my body today?’”
If you need help creating healthier eating habits, or believe you may be at high risk of heart disease, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. Our “Find a Doctor” tool can help you find a Dignity Health physician near you.