Keep Your Heart Beating Strong

By Ann Thelen

Simple lifestyle changes can help keep your heart beating strong. A MercyOne Iowa Heart Center expert shares tips for pumping up a heart-healthy routine.

Beth ChiaA heart is a symbol of love, caring and compassion. It’s also the very center of our well-being. February is American Heart Month, and it serves as a reminder that loving your heart is something we should focus on every day of the year. Food choices and an active lifestyle can have a significant impact on your heart health, helping to make sure the beat goes on!

To help you integrate some heart-healthy practices into your lifestyle, we talked with Beth Chia, ARNP, who practices at MercyOne’s Iowa Heart Center in West Des Moines and serves as the program director for the Prevention & Wellness Clinic. In the Q&A below, she shares meal tips, perspectives on fad diets and ideas for getting moving.

Iowa Food & Family Project (Iowa FFP): What are some general guidelines for eating heart-healthy foods?

Chia: The fundamentals of are a great place to start. These guidelines advise the amount of food you should eat from five key food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein sources. Everything you eat and drink matters. Maintaining the right mix can help you be healthier by focusing on variety, portion size and nutrition components; and choosing foods and beverages with less saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.

Heart-Healthy Tip: Use the nutrition facts label and ingredient list to find amounts of saturated fat, sodium and added sugars in the foods and beverages you choose.

Iowa FFP: Embarking on a heart-healthy lifestyle can seem overwhelming. What are some simple tips to get started? 

Chia: I encourage patients to build heart-healthy habits into their daily routines, just as they would brush their teeth. It can start with adding one more vegetable a day to a meal and watching portion size. For example, the recommended portion size for fish, poultry or red meat is 3 ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards. Or the goal could be as simple as avoiding “seconds.”  

Heart-Healthy Tip: Vary your routine with different protein sources throughout the week. Meat, poultry, seafood, beans, eggs, soy, nuts and seeds all count.

Iowa FFP: What are some ideas for foods to pair with proteins in a heart-healthy diet? 

Chia: The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a healthy eating pattern that includes protein foods in nutrient-dense forms. Pairing protein with more whole foods is essential. Ideally, half of your plate should be comprised of fruits and non-starchy vegetables as well as a moderate portion of whole grain (e.g., brown rice, quinoa, wild rice or faro) or starchy vegetables (e.g. potatoes, corn, peas or squash) and some healthy fat (unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, nuts or avocados).

Heart-Healthy Tip: Take time to learn about small changes that can make an impact. For an easy way to work in healthy fats into your daily routine, make your salad dressing using olive oil or add nuts to a salad. Try swapping out iceberg lettuce for more nutrient-rich spinach. Adding a hard-boiled egg to a salad can pump up the protein, which helps you stay full longer and is essential for muscle development.

Iowa FFP: What are your thoughts on the different fad diets that are being promoted by various sources? 

Chia: Fad diets may help people to lose weight in the short term, but there are often unintended consequences that can be detrimental to overall health. Usually, the weight comes back on, and when it does, the person frequently has health issues – such as extremely high cholesterol – they may not have had before the fad diet.

Generally, unless there is an underlying medical reason to do so, we don’t recommend entirely removing any one food group. For example, completing cutting out carbohydrates from a diet isn’t healthy or sustainable. When eaten in moderation, complex carbohydrates – such as blueberries or quinoa – provide nutrients the body needs to thrive.

Heart-Healthy Tip: Berries are chock full of heart-healthy phytonutrients and soluble fiber. Try adding blueberries, strawberries, blackberries or raspberries in yogurt or whole grain cereal.

Iowa FFP: To maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle, how important are exercise and tracking what you eat? 

Chia: The general guidelines for improving overall cardiovascular health are at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity). Find activities you enjoy, which get your blood flowing and heart pumping. There are enormous benefits of getting outside and enjoying nature while you reap the benefits of exercise. If you start tracking your daily input of all food and beverages by writing it down or using an app, you’ll likely tend to make better choices.

Heart-Healthy Tip: Whenever possible, take the stairs and park farther away from a place you are going. Make some exercise part of your routine, just like brushing your teeth!

Note: This content is intended to provide general, broad-based tips for heart health. Individuals with health concerns should always consult with their physician or healthcare provider when making exercise and dietary decisions.