Hectic days and busy nights beg for convenience, which is why many of us rely on the grab-and-go ease of processed foods. But these meals are often high in fat, salt, and sugar -- and low in heart-healthy nutrients like calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber.
Yet, eating right can be convenient, too, if you shop smart and keep good-for-you foods handy. A diet rich in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and good fats can help lower cholesterol and high blood pressure, boost immunity, and protect against heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and some cancers.
To help you make heart-healthy choices, here are lists of what to add to your shopping cart -- and what to avoid.
Foods to Buy
- Produce: Look for colorful fruits and vegetables, like berries, oranges, apples, yams, broccoli, spinach, and bell peppers. Naturally cholesterol-free and low-fat, fruits and vegetables are the foundation of any heart-healthy diet.
- Whole grains: Nutrient-rich whole grains like whole wheat, oats, quinoa and barley offer fiber, complex carbohydrates, and protein. Look for breads, pastas, and cereals made with a variety of whole grains, not just whole wheat. You will need to avoid certain grains, though, if you have gluten intolerance or celiac disease. Be sure to read the label to make sure the products are also low in fat, sugar and sodium.
- Meat and beans: Choose skinless cuts of chicken or turkey breasts, and lean cuts of meat such as pork tenderloin and beef round, sirloin, or tenderloin. Read labels to ensure the meat is at least 92% fat-free. Buy protein-rich beans such as black, soy/edamame, kidney, or garbanzo beans.
- Nuts and seeds: For snacks and garnishes for salads and pastas, stock up on plain nuts or seeds. When buying nut butters like natural-style peanut butter or almond butter, look for products that contain just the nuts or nuts and salt.
- Dairy/calcium: Look for low-fat or reduced-fat dairy products (yogurt, milk, and cheese), as well as canned fish such as tuna, sardines, and salmon to get dietary calcium. If you’re lactose-intolerant or vegan, try calcium-enriched or fortified cereals and juices, and green, leafy vegetables, to fill calcium dietary gaps. Vitamin D, which aids in calcium absorption, is often added to dairy products, some cereal products and margarine and is found naturally in fish and egg yolks.
- Omega-3-rich foods: Most people aren’t getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. You find these heart-healthy fats in fish, but cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, halibut, herring, and mackerel have higher amounts. You can also find plant omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts and ground flaxseed. Also look for “functional” foods, meaning they’re enriched with nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids. These may include eggs, dairy, soy products, breads, cereal, pasta, and waffles.
- Plant sterol-enriched foods: Plant sterols and stanols that help lower cholesterol occur naturally in foods in tiny amounts. You can get some plant sterols naturally from produce, nuts, seeds, and legumes, but not nearly the 2 grams a day recommended for people with high cholesterol. If you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol, look for sterol-enriched foods such as margarine spreads, some yogurt or low-fat milk, some fruit juices, and some cereal. The FDA recommends buying foods that contain at least 0.65 grams of plant sterols or stanols per serving. Be sure to read the food labels to make sure the food is not also high in fat and sugar.
Another way to shop for foods that may benefit heart health is to keep an eye out for heart-health claims on the food labels. For example, to make a health claim about heart disease and fats, a food must be low in fat and cholesterol. To carry a claim about blood pressure and sodium, a food must be low in sodium.