Hectic days and busy nights beg for convenience. Which is why many of us rely on the grab-andgo ease of processed foods. But these pre-made meals are often high in fat, salt, and sugar. Just as bad, processed meals are usually low in heart-healthy nutrients like calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber.
Fortunately, eating right can be convenient too -- and has rewards beyond great taste. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and good fats can help lower cholesterol and high blood pressure, boost immunity, and protect against heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and some cancers. Food can be powerful medicine, indeed.
To help you shop for heart health the next time you head to the supermarket, WebMD put together a quick list of foods to add to your shopping cart, and a list of items to avoid no matter how convenient they are.
Heart-Healthy Shopping: Foods to Buy
Of course you’ll want to look for heart-healthy whole foods when you shop, but also keep an eye out for functional foods that may fill in nutritional gaps. (Functional foods are those with added nutrients, such as calcium-enriched orange juice.)
Here’s a list to take on your next heart-healthy trip to the grocery store.
Look for colorful fruits and vegetables: berries, oranges, apples, yams, broccoli, spinach, bell peppers, and more. Cholesterol-free, low-fat, fruits and vegetables are the foundation of any heart-healthy diet.
With fiber, complex carbohydrates, and protein, nutrient-rich whole grains like wheat, oat, and barley benefit any diet. Look for breads, pastas, and cereals made with whole grains. Be sure to read the label to make sure the products are also low in fat and sugar.
Meat and Beans:
Look for lean protein such as chicken or turkey breasts, pork tenderloin, or beef round, sirloin or tenderloin. Read labels to ensure the meat is 96% to 98% fat free. Buy protein-rich beans such as black, soy, kidney or garbanzo beans. For snacks, buy plain nuts or seeds.
Look for low-fat dairy products, as well as canned fish such as tuna, sardines, or salmon to get dietary calcium. Low-fat yogurt, reduced-fat milk, and cheese are food sources of calcium. For the lactose-intolerant or vegans, functional foods such as fortified cereals and juices can help fill calcium and vitamin D gaps.
Most people aren’t getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.
You find these heart-healthy fats in cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, halibut, herring, and mackerel. Ask the service person at your seafood counter for other ideas. You can also find omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts and flaxseed. Also look for functional foods enriched with omega-3 fatty acids, such as eggs, margarine spreads, dairy, soy products, and some 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 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 functional 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 health claims on the labels, suggests the American Heart Association. 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.
Heart-Healthy Shopping: Foods to Avoid
Most Americans eat too many saturated and trans fats, too much cholesterol, and a lot of salt and sugar.
Nutritionists recommend avoiding some aisles in the supermarket completely. Bypass rows with bakery items, crackers, cookies, and other food high in saturated fat. Shop the perimeter of the store, where you’ll usually find fresh foods like produce and low-fat dairy. Read food labels.
Ingredients are listed in order of amount of weight, from most to least. In general, avoid items with these ingredients listed high on the ingredient list of food labels:
Unhealthy trans fats can still be found in some packaged pastries, cookies, crackers, snacks, and some margarines. Read the nutrition facts to see all the fats in the product. Choose foods with zero grams of trans fats and the least amount of saturated fats per serving. Shop instead for foods with cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as olive and safflower oils.
We all need some sodium, but there’s no doubt most of us get far more than the recommended 2,300 to 2,400 mg per day. Many fast and processed foods, from soups to frozen casseroles, are high in sodium, which can raise blood pressure. Avoid high-salt soups and frozen foods. When in doubt, read labels. Depending on the brand, one can of soup may contain 500 to
1,000 mg of sodium. Remember that the flavor of processed foods is often enhanced with lots of added salt or sugar.
Sugar is added to just about everything, from spaghetti sauce and soda, to peanut butter and fast food. One can of sweetened soda alone contains about ten teaspoons of sugar and more than 120 empty calories. Here are common added sugars to look for on the ingredients list: Brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, and syrup. Foods that have one or more of those ingredients high on the list may be high in sugars.
Beware of prepared foods promoting one particular component -- look at the whole package instead. If a cereal calls itself heart-healthy because it contains oats, for example, check how much sugar and fiber the cereal has. Be sure the
food is fit to eat.
Tips for Heart-Healthy Eating
Small steps can yield big rewards over time and you don’t have to change your diet overnight.
Adding one piece of produce to your daily diet or switching from whole milk to low-fat, for example, can get you started down the road to hearthealthy eating. When you’re happy with one change, make another.
At the same time you’re adding good foods, you don’t need to ban high-calorie favorites. Even
“bad” foods can be good -- in modest amounts. Enjoying a little ice cream or fast food now and then can leave you feeling indulged and satisfied -- vital to just about any well-balanced eating plan.