This week, as part of American Heart Month, we are pleased to introduce Megan Patten, MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian at York Hospital, who will talk about nutrition and heart health. Megan’s interest in nutrition began as the result of a skiing accident at the age of 14. Serious internal injuries impacted her ability to digest food. Her long recovery period sparked Megan’s curiosity as she discovered the importance of specific nutrients and overall nutrition first-hand, not only for recovery, but also for maintaining ongoing health.

Megan will focus on helping us become more heart healthy through diet. First, she is quick to point out that this is not about being “on a diet,” but rather about our basic relationship with food and how to choose foods that best meet our nutritional needs. A key takeaway: eating should not be stressful but should be enjoyable and contribute to our overall health, including heart health.

We asked Megan (MP) several specific questions, beginning with: How do our food choices affect our heart?
MP: Foods that are high in saturated fats (for example: fried foods or butter-rich foods) will increase a person’s LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol carries fat from the liver to the arteries of the heart where it can accumulate and cause blockages, so we want to lower the LDL cholesterol in our blood. Highly processed foods are often high in sodium, which is also dangerous to heart health. The average American consumes 3,000 to 4,000 mg of sodium each day, but the recommended amount is 2,000 mg total (about 1 teaspoon). Too much sodium is a primary factor in fluid retention, putting more pressure on our blood vessels and impacting the heart’s efficiency by making it work harder to pump blood. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can make choices to lessen the negative impacts of the foods we eat!

How do we do that? Is there one specific thing that people can do to improve their heart health?
MP: In general, foods that are rich in fiber, whole grains, nuts, and fruits and vegetables are good to eat. Fiber forms a gel that  binds to bad cholesterol, carrying it away through our digestive system. Heart-healthy, or “monounsaturated” fats, are found in foods such as avocados, canola or olive oil, salmon, almonds and other nuts. These fats increase our levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol. Higher levels of HDL can help rid our bodies of LDL (bad) cholesterol by taking it from our arteries to our livers to be eliminated.

Equally important, I think that as a society, we underestimate the power of micronutrition. If you have ever been advised to “eat from the rainbow,” that is micronutrition in action. The spectrum of micronutrients—antioxidants, vitamins and minerals­—are indicated by the vibrant colors of many fruits and vegetables, and are required by the body in small, but critical, amounts. So, when we “eat from the rainbow” and incorporate more fruits and veggies into our diets, we are helping increase our bodies’ ability to fight off unstable molecules or “free radicals” that can damage cells and contribute to illness and aging.

Can focusing on nutrition alone make a difference in heart health? How do you encourage patients to change eating habits and stick with new ways of thinking about, preparing and eating food?
MP: Yes, focusing on nutrition can make a huge difference. Saturated fats, sodium, and other unhealthy foods have such negative impacts, so simply reducing those foods can yield positive results. Consider trying to focus more on intuitive, mindful eating. Trust your hunger and satiety (fullness) cues, and establish regular mealtimes. Always ask: what is my protein source? What is my fiber source? Being more aware of what and when you are eating may enable you to make peace with all types of food. Sometimes your body may crave a salad or a veggie bowl, and sometimes it may crave a cheeseburger. If you are being mindful of what you are eating, both can be enjoyed!

Can you share a few recipes with us to inspire us to focus on our heart health? This weekend is Super Bowl Sunday. Any ideas about healthy snacks or meals for the big game? Or on-the-go breakfasts for busy families so that the morning after the Super Bowl can get off to a healthy start?
MP:  I’m happy to provide some easy recipes that are great for game day, or any day, really! Cowboy Caviar dip goes great with multigrain tortilla chips or toasted whole wheat pita wedges, and the breakfast cookies also make a quick anytime snack. You can find the recipes here.

Thank you, Megan, for your time and for sharing your insights and delicious-sounding recipes with us.

Many York Hospital caregivers, some of whom are shown below, participated in National Wear Red day last Friday, February 3 to help raise awareness of the importance of heart health in reducing the risks associated with cardiovascular disease. If you haven’t seen it yet, please read the February 3 news post here, which outlines York Hospital’s plans for American Heart Month. For additional information, please contact Community Relations at (207) 351-2385 or [email protected].