“Nutrition is the foundation upon which our health is built,” says Kerrilynn Hennessey, MD, a cardiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire. “It’s an important determinant of our risk for heart attack and stroke as well as living longer.”
For optimal heart health, Dr. Hennessey says her goal is to maintain normal blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose levels, and body weight—which is why she follows a mostly plant-based diet. A diet that’s rich in fresh plant foods can help lower your sodium intake to less than about two grams daily, which has been shown to reduce blood pressure. Plant foods also help optimize your cholesterol levels to reduce your risk of heart disease, she adds.
Hennessey points to another benefit of plants: They’re high in fiber, which has loads of health benefits for your heart and body. Insoluble fiber (found in foods like vegetables and whole grains) helps control appetite and weight; lowers your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer; and prevents constipation. Soluble fiber (found in oats, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and peas) may help lower total cholesterol, blood pressure, and inflammation.
On the flip side, fried food (which is high in saturated and trans fats), processed meats, and foods with lots of added sugar (like soda) substantially increase the risk of stroke and heart disease when consumed regularly, she notes. Rather than micro-managing her diet, she focuses on minimizing these foods along with butter and margarine.
But how does she put all of that knowledge into practice? Keep reading to find out her go-to foods and snag some heart-healthy meal ideas straight from her own standard rotation. If it's good enough for a cardiologist, it's good enough for us.
A cardiologist's favorite heart-healthy foods to inspire your meal ideas
Dr. Hennessey says studies have consistently shown that a Mediterranean diet (which involves lots of fruits, nuts, vegetables, legumes, fish, lean animal protein, and whole grains) is associated with a lower risk of death than the standard American diet (which typically involves a lot of red meat and processed foods). That’s why it’s the type of diet recommended by the American Heart Association for optimal heart health—and it’s the diet Dr. Hennessey “loosely” follows.
Here's more intel about the Mediterranean diet straight from a top RD:
“I’ve realized over time that having a diet plan helps to streamline grocery shopping, makes it easier to eat healthy choices with a busy schedule, and reduces food waste,” says Dr. Hennessey. “My husband and I have a list of staple fruits and vegetables that we enjoy, know how to prepare, and are able to consume in a week. I eat avocado and nuts on a near-daily basis…and I enjoy a serving of broiled salmon weekly.”
Staples in Dr. Hennessey’s kitchen include olive oil and legumes. Her favorite foods include Brussel sprouts, snap peas, broccoli, spinach, arugula, peppers, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, hummus, bananas, raspberries, strawberries, clementine, black beans, chickpeas, onions, sweet potatoes, whole unsalted almonds or cashews, nut butter, quinoa, and brown and white rice.
While Dr. Hennessey tries to be primarily plant-based, she does eat lean meat like ground turkey, chicken breast, and salmon. It's something she balances carefully, pointing to a 2018 observational study that linked higher intake of animal protein but not vegetable protein to heart failure as evidence that cutting back on meat is a reasonable goal for heart health. “Having grown up eating meat for dinner, moderating our protein intake is one of my dietary challenges,” she says.
To keep portions reasonable, Dr. Hennessey always fills half of her plate with vegetables. She limits red meat in particular, since lots of research links it to cardiovascular disease, and picks lean cuts that are grass-fed or locally-sourced. And she aims to eat a fully plant-based diet at least once per week, substituting meat for a plant-based protein like black beans or chickpeas.
Heart-healthy meal ideas based on a cardiologist's diet
We’re all busy all of the time—and being tired and hungry can make it harder to eat well. Dr. Hennessey says eating healthy is easier when she’s prepared and hydrated, so she tries to make meals as easy as possible and focus on all the foods she can eat—specifically vegetables, fruits, nuts, and lean protein. “If a food falls in one of those categories, I know it’s healthy,” says Dr. Hennessey. Here's a typical food day for her.
Breakfast: Coffee, fruit, and nuts
In the morning, Dr. Hennessey drinks a full bottle of water on her drive to work and has coffee with non-dairy milk or cream when she arrives. If she eats breakfast, it typically consists of a piece of fruit, like a banana, and some unsalted almonds or cashews. “Nuts have healthy fats and keep me full through the morning,” she says. Meanwhile, she says bananas are portable and provide potassium (which has been linked to a lower risk of high blood pressure and blood glucose control).
Lunch: Spinach salad or leftovers
For lunch, Dr. Hennessey usually has heated leftovers from the night before or a salad with spinach and a lean protein (such as tuna, chicken, or hard-boiled eggs). If she’s really busy, she’ll munch on healthy snack foods that keep her going, like unsalted nuts, unsalted nut butter, portion-packed hummus, guacamole, cheese with crackers or vegetables, and fresh fruit. “I don’t generally choose a low-fat cheese, because fat helps make you full longer and many products add salt or sugar to make up for lost flavor when reducing the fat,” she says.
Dinner: Healthy protein bowl
At night, Dr. Hennessey and her husband prepare a weeknight rotation of “bowls” that include vegetables and either lean meat, fish, or legumes, which they pair with small roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes, or home-cooked rice. “The consistency of our meals works for us and keeps us on track,” she says.
Dessert and snacks: Cheese
When Dr. Hennessey does have desserts or other foods that aren't as clearly beneficial for heart health, she tries to cut down on the portion size. “I have a sweet tooth and I love cheese,” says Dr. Hennessey, and she eats those foods every so often, in moderation. Exactly how often you should eat those types of food, she adds, depends on your health goals. “Someone who wants to lower their blood pressure or sugars may not want to have pizza every week, but having a slice of pizza every now and then [is likely] okay,” she says.
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