Taking the Shopping Cart to Heart

April 1, 2008

According to Firefighter Jeff Sutherlin of the Cypress, CA, Fire Department, finding the best deals at the supermarket can be tough. However, what's even tougher is finding foods that give energy and support a healthy heart. "I try to choose healthy foods whenever I cook," he says. And he is not alone. Firefighters are facing the fact of a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. "Forty-five percent of deaths among firefighters are caused by heart disease." How can firefighters shop to lower their risk of heart disease?

Sarah Hewitt, a registered dietitian who teaches nutrition to firefighters at the Santa Ana College Fire Technology Department in Santa Ana, CA, says, "Eating the right foods help firefighters establish healthy lifestyles and that means maintaining healthy hearts too. Whatever we put in our shopping carts impacts our hearts." But what should we buy and what should we avoid? Here are seven tips to help make the right choices.

  1. Don't shop on an empty stomach. It takes little for our taste buds to coerce us into buying quick-fix snacks to put out the hunger attack. Try wheeling past the candy or snack foods when your stomach is growling without grabbing something to eat. Pretty tough to do. Unfortunately, snack foods can be high in salt, fat and sugar. These and other ingredients can increase our risk for heart disease.
  2. Make a list to help keep us away from last-minute-decision buying. Without the list, it is easy to grab the not-so-heart-friendly foods — an extra-large bag of potato chips or a family pack of chocolate-chip cookies. By following a list, we have a better chance to stick to the plan of healthy eating rather than piling our cart with poor food choices.
  3. Go fresh. If it's in a box, chances are it's not the freshest choice. The fresher the food, most likely, the healthier it will be for you and the crew. Make your first stop the fruit-and-vegetable section. Gather in-season produce and then make your way through the aisles. Filling the basket with important choices first helps you stay on the right track. Eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies is associated with reducing heart disease risk. Some quick-cooking vegetables include cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and spinach. Just steaming and adding a few seasonings to them makes great side dishes. Grab-and-go fruits — oranges, bananas, pears, grapes, kiwis — are some of the favorites. Great salad ingredients include avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, green onions, shredded carrots and cabbage. Mix in corn, black beans and cut-up baked chicken — voila! You've got a delicious salad.
  4. Go ahead, read the ingredient list. It's really not that bad. OK, so the print is small. Bring reading glasses and take a look at what's in the foods we like to eat. At first, it may seem scary when we see unrecognizable words, but remember that ingredients are listed in the order of the amount that is in a product. So, if fat and/or sugar are listed first, second or third, chances are, it's not heart healthy. Look at the fat content. If you see trans fat, put the product back on the shelf. Trans fats are notorious for pushing the fast-forward button on heart disease. Choose foods that have no more than 30% fat. Too much higher and we're packing in the extra calories we don't need.
  5. Be picky about meat. Spend a little time in the meat section and choose cuts that are lean and low in fat. Buy skinless chicken or chicken breast. Add salmon and tuna to the menu once or twice a week. These fish have the kind of fat that helps keep blood vessels clear. In other words, this type of fish is indeed a heart friendly food.
  6. Skip the supplement section unless there is a need for a multi-vitamin/mineral that gives about 100% of the Daily Value — this value is on the label. Hewitt mentions that, "The one supplement question that always surfaces is, 'Should I take protein supplements to boost my muscle power?' " Although a little more protein is needed to build muscle, too much protein can make you dehydrated. This will make you tired when you go out for emergencies. Depending on how dehydrated you become, this can negatively impact your heart."
  7. Don't forget to wheel by the dairy section. We've got to have calcium in our bodies for bones, but also to help maintain a healthy blood pressure. Studies show that eating a low-fat diet that is high in fruits and vegetables and foods that contain calcium help maintain a healthy heart.

To summarize, Hewitt suggests, "To keep our hearts and bodies ever ready, shop for foods that are high in fiber, low in sugar, low in fat and low in salt. This keeps us at top performance."

PAMELA WILLIAMS, MPH, RD, is a registered dietician with over 25 years of experience teaching, coaching, counseling and training people to eat and live healthy in clinics, schools, organizations, colleges and corporations. She is a co-editor of the textbook Integrating Therapeutic and Complementary Nutrition. She holds a master's degree in public health nutrition and health education from Loma Linda University in California.

UNDERSTANDING WHAT'S ON THE LABEL INGREDIENTACTIONDIET RECOMMENDATION Sodium — salt, monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrate, soy sauce Sodium can increase blood pressure in some people, which can increase heart disease risk. No more than 2,300 mg a day. Read labels and see how much sodium is in foods — especially packaged ones. Caffeine — sodas, energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate Caffeine can temporarily increase blood pressure or cause the heart to race in some people. This may affect heart disease risk. Moderate intake — no more than 300 mg a day or about 2 cups of coffee or 32 oz of caffeinated sodas Refined grains — cookies, breads, cakes, crackers, pasta Refined grains generally lack fiber. Soluble fiber such as oatmeal helps lower cholesterol, which helps lower heart disease risk 25 mg fiber a day — the average person gets about 5 mg per day — oatmeal, whole grain breads are fiber rich foods High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) — sodas, cookies, jelly, baked goods HFCS contains a sugar called fructose. When we process this sugar, it does not regulate appetite. This might cause weight gain and increased heart disease risk. None — no limits for high fructose corn syrup but minimize intake Saturated Fats/Trans Fats — animal fat, palm oil, lard, coconut oil, hydrogenated oil, partially hydrogenated oil Saturated and trans fats can collect along the walls of arteries. This can harden arteries and increase heart disease risk. Choose monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids. These offer health benefits while saturated and trans fats do not. Olive and canola oil are healthy choices.

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