Health & Fitness

You may love pizza, pastelitos and a swig of Coke. But your heart doesn’t. Really.

Whenever you go grocery shopping, you’re faced with lots of choices: Will you pick toaster pastries or oatmeal for breakfast? Take potato chips or chopped celery as a snack? Whip up frozen dinners or defrost the chicken?

These don’t sound like life-or-death decisions, but they can be.

“Good health and poor health is a cumulative effect of what you do to your body,” said Lillian Craggs-Dino, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston.

Too often, we’re accumulating an excess of sugar, sodium and fat, resulting in lots of calories and little nutrition. It’s a recipe for health problems like high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, obesity, diabetes and heart failure.

“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer and cancer is right behind it,” Craggs-Dino said. “Diet plays a major role.”

Creating a heart healthy diet means eating more foods rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals and good fats. It also requires ditching foods high in saturated fats, sugar and salt, not an easy feat.

In our Hispanic community, rice, potatoes and bread are a humongous part of the diet. The body will convert them to fat that lodge in the tummy. Abdominal fat is the root of all evil.

Dr. Alvaro Gomez, cardiologist at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, Baptist Health South Florida

“We live in the real world so I’m not saying we have to be perfect,” said Sheah Rarback, a registered dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and a Miami Herald columnist. “It’s a balancing act.”

But the scales should tip heavily toward a diet of vegetables, fruits, lean protein like fish and chicken, she said.

“The root cause of so many chronic diseases is inflammation,” Rarback said. Countering that are powerful, anti-inflammatory foods including green leafy vegetables, berries, fatty fish and nuts.

Fried foods, sugary beverages, processed meats and simple carbohydrates found in white bread, potatoes, pasta and rice inflame our system.

“We really need to concentrate on carbs,” said Dr. Alvaro Gomez, cardiologist at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, Baptist Health South Florida. “We can’t avoid them completely but we should make a drastic reduction. Carbs are responsible for our monumental epidemic of obesity.”

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Dr. Ana Victoria Soto, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center

In a carb-loving society hooked on pizza, pasta and pastries, fighting a carb-loaded diet is difficult. “In our Hispanic community, rice, potatoes and bread are a humongous part of the diet,” Gomez said. “The body will convert them to fats that lodge in the tummy. Abdominal fat is the root of all evil.”

Fat in the stomach area is considered the most dangerous for heart health. A person with a body mass index (a way of measuring stomach fat) of 25 or more is considered overweight and potentially obese.

“You can start by decreasing portion size,” said Dr. Ana Victoria Soto, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “We grow up with the notion that we should clean our plate but whatever you’re eating, cut back.”

Here, then, are steps you can take immediately to lose weight and adapt a heart-healthy diet:

Add up how much sugar you use. The American Heart Association recommends that most women should limit added sugar to six teaspoons a day, men to nine. “A can of soda has nine to 10 teaspoons of sugar,” said Lucette Talamas, a registered dietitian with Baptist Health South Florida.

Limit salt. Most Americans consume about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day — more than twice the 1,500 milligrams the American Heart Association recommends. Most salt in our diet is from processed food and restaurant meals, not from our salt shaker. Excess salt raises blood pressure, “known as the silent killer.”

Eat more fiber. “Fiber naturally brings down cholesterol and blood pressure,” Craggs-Dino said. “The average person eats about 14 grams of fiber a day but men need 38 grams a day and women need 25 to 28 grams a day.”

Enjoy fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors; foods with dark skins are usually nutrient rich.

Add healthy foods like berries, nuts and grains to salads, soups, sauces and oatmeal. The same policy for garlic and other spices and herbs.

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Avocados: “An avocado is one of the best things you can eat,” said Dr. Jeffrey Lin, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai. The fruit is loaded with monounsaturated fats, which can help minimize blood cholesterol and blood clots. But they’re also high in calories so don’t binge — a serving size is about a third of a medium avocado.

Beets: Beets are known to reduce inflammation and help lower blood pressure. They have folate and betaine, a good source of cardiovascular health. Beet juice is also getting popular with athletes.

Berries: Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries are full of heart-healthy nutrients. “They’re high in anthocyanin, which help dilate blood vessels and help lower blood pressure,” Rarback said. Frozen berries (packaged without sugar) are an option all year. Other top fruits include citrus, bananas and papaya.

Cocoa: You read this right. Chocolate — dark chocolate, that is — can help prevent heart disease. Get chocolate that’s at least 60 to 70 percent cocoa and stick to one square a day. Sorry, milk and white chocolate don’t make the cut. You can also add cocoa powder to sauces (think mole) and stews.

Legumes: Lentils and beans “are a powerhouse of nutrition,” Talamas said. Beans have lots of soluble fiber, B-complex vitamins, niacin, folate, magnesium, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. Chickpeas, black beans and kidney beans are all winners.

Sardines: These tiny fish are also high in omega-3 fatty acids and anti-inflammatory. Just avoid canned versions loaded with salt. Other oily picks: salmon (wild recommended), tuna, mackerel, herring and barramundi.

Spinach: Green leafy vegetables like spinach are anti-inflammatory, rich in vitamins and minerals and a good source of fiber. Its superfood pals are kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, broccoli, okra, turnip greens and mustard greens.

Walnuts: These nuts have the most omega-3 fatty acids but almonds and other nuts can help lower bad cholesterol and boost good cholesterol. Eat them plain (no salt, sugar or chocolate) and no more than a handful a day.

Oatmeal: “It has a special kind of fiber that decreases your bad cholesterol,” Soto said. Oats are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (which help prevent cell damage). Use steel cut or regular oats (skip instant). Other power grains include quinoa, amaranth, spelt and farro.

Chia seeds: These little seeds are “loaded with antioxidants and fiber,” said Sonia Angel, coordinator of the Diabetes & Nutrition Center at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. Seeds are also a source of calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Also try ground flax seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and hemp seeds.