In 2021, the American Heart Association (AHA) provided new recommendations for heart-healthy eating for the first time in 15 years. The AHA’s tips are more realistic and inclusive than past guidelines. They focus on well-rounded, whole-person journeys that encourage everyone to get started on a healthier path.
This time, the AHA acknowledged different customs and food preferences, including the fact that you may enjoy dining out or ordering in. A major takeaway is to keep it simple. Aim for consistent eating patterns that promote good health, but allow yourself some indulgences.
The AHA research recognizes structural racism and the challenges facing communities that lack access to affordable, healthy food options. The new recommendations encourage you to remain true to your culture, religion, life stage, lifestyle and food preferences. There are small ways to make any type of food healthier, as we'll explore below.
Because healthy eating is a lifelong journey, you can improve your habits at any age or stage of life. One insight is to avoid thinking of foods as good or bad. When food is used as a reward or thought of as punishment, it takes away from overall enjoyment and can create unhealthy relationships with food.
AHA researchers encourage everyone to make improvements, but they note that it is especially valuable to help children understand nutritious eating habits because it sets the stage for better heart health for the rest of their lives.
By starting now, you can make a difference for your own health and serve as a role model for others.
Recommendations for a healthy heart
Before we delve into the how, let’s explore the why. Following AHA recommendations can help you reduce your risk of heart-related health issues like:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
To incorporate healthy eating into your everyday life, the AHA recommends that you:
- Reduce your salt intake
- Choose foods and beverages without added sugar
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Select whole grains and fresh foods over processed foods
- Get protein from lean meat, fish, plants, nuts and low-fat dairy products
- Adjust your food intake to your activity levels and energy needs
Applications in everyday life
It’s one thing to know what we should be doing. It’s another to actually do it. Here are some ways to incorporate these tips into your daily eating habits.
- Change your approach to comfort foods. You can still enjoy them, but control your portions or eat them less often. For example, enjoy half a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese instead of a full bowl. Or have a candy bar twice a week rather than every day.
- Use low-fat versions of food (e.g., milk, cheese and yogurt) in recipes or as snacks.
- Replace most drinks — including soda, juice and milk — with water. Flavored water that's low in sugar can be a good substitute for juice. If you need the caffeine from soda, try tea instead. Make small shifts at first, replacing a drink or two a week, instead of making the change all at once.
- When cooking, use liquid plant oils (like olive oil) instead of tropical oils (like coconut or palm oil) that are solid at room temperature.
- Try baking or grilling fish and chicken instead of frying or breading them.
- Replace some of your meat choices with beans.
- At the beginning of the week, put fruits, veggies and nuts in to-go containers so your snacks are prepared and ready to grab when hunger sets in.
A great way to get started is by asking friends, family and coworkers for their favorite healthy recipes. You may end up sharing meals or providing emotional support as you make healthier choices.
Making wholesale changes isn’t easy. It’s best to start with small steps and build a healthy foundation. Pick one or two of the above ideas and expand from there. Reaching small goals can lead to big changes.
Note that the AHA recommendations are still generalized in order to help the widest range of people. You should consult with your physician regarding your personal health conditions. For example, you might need to take multivitamins or avoid certain ingredients like gluten.
If you find that the workday presents a challenge to your healthy eating goals, talk with human resources. They may have additional suggestions or resources, including wellness initiatives or an employee assistance program, that can help you on your heart-healthy journey.
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