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How to be heart smart with your shopping cart


U-M dietitian offers advice on navigating nutrition claims and food labels

ANN ARBOR, MI – It can often be daunting to decipher what is and isn’t considered healthy as you steer through grocery store aisles filled with a potpourri of products, labels and claims. This can be even more confusing when it comes to finding foods to help manage your heart health.

Yet Cathy Fitzgerald, registered dietitian with MFit, the University of Michigan Health System’s health promotion division, says that taking the time to learn how to incorporate a heart-healthy diet into your lifestyle can pay off by improving your cholesterol, blood pressure and weight.

“Heart-healthy eating is about making good choices,” says Fitzgerald. “A basic way to do that is use the government approved food guide pyramid that emphasizes the food groups that we need to include in a heart-healthy diet. More specifically, what you want to do is work to include more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, low-fat and no-fat dairy products, as well as lean protein sources.”

Simply educating yourself on what food label language truly means can steer you in the right direction when it comes to finding nutritious foods.

Fitzgerald offers these tips on what to look for when it comes to heart-healthy eating:

1. The claim, “May reduce the risk of heart disease.” You can be assured that you are buying a beneficial product when you see this on a label. A company cannot merely put this statement on a food if it wants to. “This claim means there is scientific evidence that the Food and Drug Administration has decided is strong enough to support it,” explains Fitzgerald.

2. Nutrient content claims. These are government regulations that a company must follow to use terms such as “high,” “low” or “reduced.” For example, a food must have three grams of fat or less to be considered low fat, and a product that is high in a certain nutrient provides 20 percent or more of the daily value suggested by the FDA. Since these are regulated claims, you can feel confident that you are making educated choices when you select these products, Fitzgerald says.

3. Foods with fiber. Fiber is important for the health of the digestive system and for lowering cholesterol. Look for claims that say “high in fiber” or “excellent source of fiber.” These products have at least five grams of fiber per serving. A food that is listed as being a “good source” of fiber has two and a half grams of fiber or more. Beans, whole grain breads and cereals, oatmeal, and products with barley in them are all considered good sources of fiber.

4. Omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats are considered healthy fats to eat, and research has shown that they can benefit the heart, Fitzgerald says. Fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and trout are good sources of omega fats and are low in saturated fat.

5. Sterols and stanols. Plant sterols and stanols are cholesterol-lowering substances that are added to products like margarine and salad dressings. Some companies are beginning to offer them in chew and liquid form so that they can be taken in more quickly. Fitzgerald explains that it can be difficult to find these products because they are not always labeled clearly. She suggests reviewing labels to make sure you are buying a product that states that they offer the cholesterol-lowering benefits of plant sterols and stanols.

Health Minute ImageWhile there are many beneficial products to choose from when it comes to heart health, Fitzgerald also warns against these food label offenders:

1. Sodium. “When we’re looking at labels with a heart-healthy eye and considering sodium it is really important to look for words like ‘low sodium’ or ‘reduced sodium’,” says Fitzgerald. This is especially important in processed and canned foods. If a food is labeled as “reduced” in sodium, it has 25 percent less of it than the original product.

2.Trans fats. “The story on trans fats is growing every day because they do have an impact on heart health, and unfortunately it is a negative effect,” explains Fitzgerald. Trans fats raise your bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol, and therefore they should be eaten very sparingly. They are found in fried foods and in processed foods that have a long shelf life. The term “partially hydrogenated oil” is a key indicator on an ingredients list that the food contains trans fats.

3. Saturated fat. This is the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol, Fitzgerald notes. Butter, red meat such as hamburger and pork sausage, and cheese made from whole milk are among foods with the highest amount of saturated fat. Fitzgerald recommends comparing the saturated fat and trans fat listed on nutrition labels of foods and selecting the product that has the lowest sum. Eating low or non-fat dairy products and lean meats such as loin or round cuts are ways to control your saturated fat intake. Also try using more liquid margarines instead of butter.

Taking the time to investigate food labels not only can improve your heart health, but also your overall wellness. Some types of cancer, osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes are additional conditions that can be prevented or managed by the foods people choose to eat.

“Reading the labels is a great way to be guided toward healthier choices for your heart and for general reduction of all chronic diseases today,” says Fitzgerald. “So think about using the front of the package as well as the nutrition facts on the back when you are out shopping.”

Written by Laura Drouillard


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