A Healthy Heart Diet

Featured Article, Healthy Heart, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition, Special Diets
on January 31, 2011
Greg Blackman

When Mary Bullen's husband, Graham, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 10 years ago, she didn't have a clue what should be on his do-not-eat list. "I initially felt very confused and overwhelmed about what he should be served at meal-times," recalls Mary, 66, a homemaker and retired hospital lab technologist.

At the time, Mary realized she would benefit from eating more healthful meals too, as her cholesterol level was slightly elevated. But after reading about diabetes and heart disease in books and journals, the Gibsonia, Pa., couple was surprised to learn that their diet didn't have to be as restrictive as they feared.

"We discovered we didn't have to eliminate sugar completely," says Mary, who along with her 71-year-old husband still enjoys dessert after their evening meal.

What the couple did stop eating: white flour, white rice and white pasta "they don't miss," because they've replaced it with delicious and colorful yams, sweet potatoes, brown rice and whole-wheat bread.

The Bullens also scaled back on red meat and now eat seafood like orange roughy, tilapia or shrimp stir-fry nearly every other meal. A decade ago, for instance, a typical supper for the couple was roast lamb, roasted white potatoes and vegetables; these days their dinner plates hold baked salmon, baked yams and seasonal vegetables instead.

The couple also discovered that how much they eat is just as important as what food fills their pantry. "We figured out that portion control was critical to controlling our weight," says Mary, who uses the palm of her hand to gauge the right-size serving of meat or fish, and eyeballs side items to measure between a half and one cup.

The Bullens definitely are on the right track with their heart-healthy diet changes. "You don't need to ban all fat from your diet to protect your heart," says Cheryl Forberg, a dietitian and author of Positively Ageless, a book about healthy eating to lower risk of age-related diseases, "but it is a good idea to cut out the white stuff–white flour, white rice and white pasta–to help promote better blood sugar control."

Cardiologist Robert A. Vogel agrees that the couple's decision to cut down on red meat will benefit their hearts. "Red meat tends to contain saturated fat and cholesterol, both of which can contribute to heart problems," says Vogel, co-author of The Pritikin Edge, a book based on the healthy lifestyle promoted at The Pritikin Longevity Center in Aventura, Fla. "But fish is low in bad fats and rich in omega-3 fats, which reduce inflammation in the heart's arteries."

As for portion control, Forberg is a big fan: "Adult-onset diabetes is usually a result of weight gain and can often be reversed by losing the weight," says Forberg, who recommends using a calorie "budget" to manage what, and how much, you eat. "And studies have shown that losing just 10 pounds if you're overweight can help reduce your blood pressure."

One habit the Bullens didn't have to adjust was their love of fresh fruits and vegetables, which always have been staples in the couple's kitchen. And it's a habit that gives their hearts a boost, too. Fruits and veggies are loaded with vitamins and fiber, and are rich sources of potassium, a mineral that helps flush sodium from the body and thereby reduces the risk of high blood pressure.

Mary's Black Bean, Corn and Couscous Salad recipe is a near-perfect heart-healthy dish; it's low in sodium and loaded with vegetables and high-fiber beans. Serve it as a side dish for a potluck or dinner, over lettuce for a light lunch, or use it as filling for stuffed peppers.

"Always remember eating is one of the great joys of life, especially when sharing a meal with family or friends," she says. "Eating healthy doesn't mean you can't enjoy your food."

Don't Miss a Beat

With its focus on healthful eating and exercise, the Pritikin Program has helped more than 100,000 people prevent and reverse diabetes, high cholesterol and other heart problems since its creation in 1957. Here are a few tips from Robert A. Vogel and Paul Tager Lehr, authors of The Pritikin Edge, to keep your ticker strong:

Start meals with salad or soup and end them with fruit. Healthy appetizers will partially fill you up before dinner, meaning you'll eat less during the meal, and the fiber in fruits and veggies will help you feel fuller longer.

Get moving and drop a few pounds. "Losing weight improves almost every factor that causes heart disease. It lowers bad cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, blood sugar, inflammation and excess blood clotting, and increases good cholesterol," Vogel says. For a 150-pound person, walking 40 minutes burns about 175 calories; do it every day for a year and you could lose nearly 17 pounds.

Watch the salt. While salt is important for normal body functions, too much can raise blood pressure, which could lead to stroke, heart attack or dementia. Aim for about two-thirds of a teaspoon of sodium per day. Be wary of canned soups, sauces and packaged breads that contain high levels of salt.