Every woman should be eating seven to nine daily servings of produce. No, it’s not a half cup of steamed green beans with a scant pat of margarine on top. It’s a snack of six to 10 baby carrot sticks dipped in hummus; a half cup of berries (frozen or fresh) thrown over yogurt; a half cup of frozen spinach on a whole wheat English muffin. Be creative. The choices are only as limited as your imagination.
You want to be eating fewer saturated fatty acids found in fatty beef and other meats, and also fewer trans fatty acids, found in all manner of packaged snack foods, including store-bought cookies, stuffing and rice mixes, and so on.
But unsaturated fatty acids, found in various cooking oils and other foods, are great for heart health—as long as you use them sparingly, since they’re high in calories. Canola oil is particularly low in saturated fat. Try it in dishes for which you’re not looking for a strong, oily flavor. Olive oil has a rich, full-bodied flavor. Dribble it onto salads and other dishes where you want the oil to assert its flavor. Sesame oil works great for Asian cooking.
In terms of spreads, opt for liquid or tub margarine rather than butter or hard margarine. They’ll be lowest in the kinds of fats you’re trying to limit.
Grain-based, high carbohydrate foods like bread and pasta have gotten a bad wrap with the recent popularity of low-carb diets. But carbohydrates are good for you. You just want to emphasize the more healthful ones in your diet.
Choose whole grains rather than refined whenever possible. Of the four to nine servings of grain-based foods you should choose each day, try to make sure at least half are whole grain. That includes a 1-ounce slice of whole grain bread; a serving of whole grain breakfast cereal (including oatmeal, which is a whole grain); a half cup of whole wheat pasta; or a half cup of brown rice. The first ingredient on ingredient lists should be “whole wheat” or “whole grain.” Oats and oatmeal do not have to have the word ‘whole.’ They are automatically a whole grain. The same is true for brown rice.
Go for two to three servings of dairy foods everyday, which help reduce blood pressure, a major risk for heart disease. That includes a cup of skim or 1% milk; a cup of low or nonfat yogurt; or an ounce to an ounce-and-a-half of hard cheese such as Swiss or cheddar.
Go easy on ice cream, heavy cream and most other whole-milk dairy foods. It’s not that you can never have them; there’s no food that’s totally off limits. But those should be the once-in-a-while foods, while low- and nonfat dairy should be dietary mainstays. (Hard cheese is high in saturated fat, which is why the recommended serving is on the small size—about the size of one to two dominoes.)
All women should shoot for three to four daily servings of high-protein foods. The best ones for women trying to keep their hearts healthy don't come packaged with a lot of saturated fat. That means going easy on fatty cuts of beef and other meats. But even more than that, it means keeping protein servings on the modest side. A protein serving is 3 ounces of cooked fish, meat, or poultry; a half cup of cooked beans, a half cup of tofu, an egg (yes, eggs are okay a few times a week), or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter. To stretch small meat servings, slice them up for use in stir fries, stews or casseroles. A 3-ounce serving of meat pushed by itself to the side of the plate can look rather small.
Fish, with its particularly heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, is highly recommended at least twice a week. A lot of women are concerned about fish because of reports of mercury and other toxins. But only four types of fish should be off the menu for women of childbearing years and young children: shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. All other fish are okay, and it’s fine to eat up to 12 ounces of fish a week, as long as you vary the type. (Don’t just go with two 6-ounce cans of tuna fish.)
Moderate alcohol consumption—which for women is one drink a day—appears to confer protection against heart disease. It doesn’t have to be red wine. All alcoholic beverages appear to work—white wine, beer and spirits. One drink is 3 to 5 ounces of wine, a 12-ounce beer or a drink made with an ounce to an ounce-and-a-half of spirits such as gin or vodka.
Note: Women who do not currently drink should not start drinking for heart health. The evidence for eating a diet high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains along with some fish and low-fat dairy items is much stronger than the evidence for alcohol, which proves addictive for some. Moreover, even moderate alcohol intake has been linked with an increased risk for breast cancer—a concern for someone who has breast cancer in her family or is otherwise at increased risk for that disease.
A lot of women feel they get very hungry between meals and need something to tide them over. Go for it. Snacking is a great idea because it provides more opportunities for women to get the foods they need. A reasonable snack contains anywhere from about 80 to 120 calories. That includes a piece of fruit, an ounce of cheese, 2 to 3 tablespoons of nuts or a small container of yogurt. Don’t forget those baby carrots—just go easy on the hummus and other dips, which tend to have a lot of calories.