Matters of the Heart: Second Harvest's Dietitian on Food and Heart Health

By Emily Franko

February is American Heart Month, so I sat down with Mindy Wallis, Nutrition Education Manager and registered dietitian at Second Harvest, to talk about how the food we eat impacts our heart health.

EF: What role does food play in heart health?

MW: Our food choices that we make play a really large role in our overall heart health. There’s some factors that we don’t have any control over – age, gender, genetics, things like that. But certain foods choices and activity choices definitely play a role. Do you want me to go into more details about what that means?

EF: Sure, that would be great.

MW: So, when I think about heart health, I think about the ability and ease with which the heart can distribute blood throughout the body, getting the food, the nutrition, the oxygen to the cells that need it. Nutrition-related chronic diseases, things like high blood pressure or type-2 diabetes or high cholesterol—the food choices that we make are directly related to those diseases. And those diseases are all diseases that are harmful for the heart. If we’re able to prevent those types of diseases, it’s much easier for our heart to do what it’s meant to do – getting the oxygen and nutrients to the cells.

EF: So certain foods increase our likelihood of having those diseases, which then impact our heart health negatively?

MW: Correct.

EF: So are there specific foods that are good for our heart health, and if so, what are they?

MW: The foods that are best for our heart are foods that are going to help us live an active lifestyle and keep our blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol in a normal range. So what does that look like on your plate? It comes down to a variety of whole fruits and a variety of colorful vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are high in potassium, which plays a large role in heart health, keeping that blood pressure down. But they are also great sources of fiber, which helps with cholesterol as well. When your cholesterol levels get out of balance, that’s when you start to get deposits of plaque in blood vessels. Your heart has tiny blood vessels that give the heart oxygen. So you can imagine that if you have these little bits of plaque, or cholesterol, floating around in your bloodstream, it can clog up those tinier tubes, more or less. Keeping your cholesterol levels in check is really, really important, and there are foods that help with that.

EF: So what kind of foods should we avoid so that those tiny blood vessels that feed the heart don’t get clogged?

MW: It’s not one food that’s going to do it. It’s when our blood pressure levels, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol levels get out of control, that’s when you have a higher risk of this stuff getting “stuck” inside of your blood vessels. Saturated fat is what makes the cholesterol levels go a little bit crazy. Foods with a lot of added sugars over time make your blood sugar levels go a little bit crazy. And you’re not getting much nutrition from these foods that have a lot of extra sugar. I’m thinking beverages – sodas, juice drinks, stuff like that. As far as blood pressure, when we have a lot of really high sodium foods, it makes that pressure higher, which puts more stress on those vessels as well. So when you have a combination of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol, it puts a lot of pressure on the heart. If we were able to choose more foods that have less saturated fat – completely beneficial for your heart. Pay attention to sodium levels and look for foods with not a lot of added sodium. Big ones are sauces, condiments, soups. Most things in a can, most processed foods use sodium as a preservative. So try to stay away from those. And then the other piece was foods with added sugars. If you’re looking at canned fruits, choose ones that are canned in their own juices or in water – not a heavy syrup. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages when you can, things like that.

EF: And so how would someone know when they’re looking at a food if it has a lot of saturated fat, sodium or sugar?

MW: I would really recommend reading the label. On the back of foods, there’s a nutrition facts label, and on that it’ll show the saturated fat level, the sodium amount, and if there’s added sugars in it. So those three things – just try to keep them lower.

EF: What are three simple ways we can incorporate more heart healthy foods into our day?

MW: The number one, most simple way is to make your own meals. The more that you can make your food rather than using foods that are already prepared, you’re going to reduce those three things (blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol). You can select what you’re adding to your meals and choose foods low in fat, sugar and sodium. Maybe try to make one more meal each day or something like that. It wouldn’t have to be a total overhaul, but just do these steady changes over time. Another easy way would be to read food labels, like we just talked about. And lastly, think about adding heart healthy foods to things that you’re already eating. I think about the kids having cereal in the morning. What would it look like to put fruit with the cereal? Having oatmeal or yogurt in the morning – add some extra fruit to that. Having a salad for lunch? Throw some beans in that salad to get a little bit more fiber. Or just making a simple switch of trying to have more whole grains. Whatever bread you might use, maybe you could get a whole wheat or whole grain bread. So just trying to incorporate some more of those heart healthy foods.  

Did Mindy inspire you to cook some heart healthy foods? Check out recipes from The Kitchen at Second Harvest. Happy American Heart Month!