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Written by: Irene Euodia
Medically reviewed by: Robert Philibert MD Ph.D

When it comes to heart attack recovery or prevention of heart disease, a nutritious diet can make a significant impact on your future well-being. Along with regular exercise and avoiding smoking, cutting unhealthy foods helps lower your cholesterol level and blood pressure to prevent heart disease.

It is important to limit your consumption of certain types of fats. Not all fats are harmful while others are essential to our well being. So, it is important to know which ones you are consuming. For example, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol or “bad cholesterol” level is raised by the consumption of saturated fats and trans fats. This can result in the formation of plaques that build up and clog your arteries. When your arteries are narrowed, it is harder for blood to flow through them. This increases the risk for stroke and heart disease. This is why the American Heart Association suggests limiting the daily saturated fat consumption to 11-13 grams a day for a 2000-calories diet.

But avoiding saturated and trans fats is only one part of a “heart-healthy” diet. So what does a “heart-healthy” diet look like? A heart-healthy diet focuses on reducing salt, sugar, and processed foods while getting more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, low-fat poultry, and healthy (unsaturated) fats such as those from nuts and seeds.

While there is no need to eliminate fats, there are some healthier substitutes for unhealthy fats that can lower blood pressure and cholesterol without compromising the taste of your favorite meals! Here are some tips to help you get started:

1. Mayonnaise

Mayonnaise consists of egg yolk, soybean oil, and two tablespoons serving up to 4 grams of saturated fats without much nutritional value. Instead of mayonnaise, try mashed avocado, greek yogurt, and hummus in order to provide more nutritional benefits and healthy fats for vegetable salads and sandwiches.

2. Sour cream

Sour cream also contains high saturated fats. You can switch sour cream to low-fat yogurt or cashew creams to lower fat consumption. To make cashew cream, soak cashews in water, then mix with vinegar, lemon juice, and sea salt for a sour-cream-like dip.

3. Cheese

While almost no one can resist cheese, it contains a lot of saturated fats. Twenty-eight grams of cheese may contain up to 6 grams of saturated fats. Some ways to swap high fat cheese are to use either reduced-fat cheese or vegan cheese, which is dairy-free cheese made from nutritional yeast and beans. However, some vegan cheese is made with coconut oil, which is also high in saturated fats. So, don’t forget to check the label before buying!

4. Ground beef

Some forms of ground beef can contain a high amount of saturated fats. Some healthier substitutes include lean ground beef, skinless poultry or salmon which is an excellent source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, turkey breast (which contains lower fat than thighs) and mushrooms are great substitutes for burgers!

5. Steak

Beware of your choice of steak cut. Poorly trimmed T-bone and ribeyes can have high amounts of saturated fats. If so, these cuts can be swapped for leaner cuts such as the eye of round, sirloin tip side, top round, or top sirloin. Moderation is always important. Even 4-ounces of lean beef can contain 3.5 grams of saturated fats. So, be mindful of your portion size.

6. Eggs

Eggs are an excellent source of protein and heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fat. However, one large egg may contain up to 1.6 grams of saturated fats and 200 mg of cholesterol (which is quite high considering the recommended daily intake is 300 mg). At the same time, eggs also contain many other nutritious components, which can help lower your cholesterol level. So, once again, moderation of consumption is key. The American Heart Association recommends consuming only 1 egg or 2 white eggs per day.

7. Salt

Most doctors and the American Heart Association recommend consuming fewer than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. That’s less than 1 teaspoon per day. In fact, the AHA considers an ideal limit for most adults to be fewer than 1,500 milligrams per day, especially if you already have high blood pressure. Salty foods can be very tempting to fulfill your cravings. But keep in mind the effects of salt on your blood pressure and try substituting your salt-based seasonings with citrus or vinegar, spices and herbs, and swapping chips for nuts. Finally, don’t forget to check the sodium content on the food label.

8. Refined grains

According to American Heart Association, diets rich in whole grains have been shown to reduce high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and the risk for stroke. By substituting all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour or oats, you can improve your fiber intake to improve blood cholesterol levels.

9. Sugar

The American Heart Association urges people to consume no more than 100 to 150 calories from added sugars per day, for females and males respectively. Added sugars can include conventional sugar, but also includes high fructose syrups whose consumption has been linked to increased risk for diabetes. Natural sugars are the ones contained in milk, fruits, and 100% fruit juice. Some hidden added sugars include instant flavored oatmeals, cereals, sweetened milk, and ice cream.

Natural sugars can also be obtained from starch. Starches, which are a complex form of simple sugars, are metabolized by the liver to gradually release sugar into the bloodstream. This results in a steady supply of glucose, the most critical sugar for your cells, rather than unhealthy spikes in supply. Examples of good starches are potatoes and whole-grain bread.

Few tips to decrease added sugar consumption is to beware of ketchup, salad dressings, and sauces. Some of these condiments can contain high amounts of sugar. You can swap high sugar salad dressings by using low-fat sour cream and herbs. You can also substitute with sugar substitutes such as stevia or erythritol for up to half of the sugar in most baked goods without any difference in texture or flavor. Lastly, you can try fruit juices instead of sweetened sauces and beverages.

10. Butter and Margarine

Butter contains high saturated fats and margarine contains high trans fat, which can be bad for your cholesterol levels and increase risk for heart disease. You can replace butter or margarine with olive oil and vegetable oil-based spread, which are healthy unsaturated fats.

A heart-healthy diet does not mean that you have to eliminate everything from your diet. The key is to be aware of the portion size and content of what you eat. So don’t feel guilty when consuming baked goods or beef. After all, eating is not only an essential part of our lives but should be one of the most enjoyable activities in our lives. But always consume any food or drink in moderation.