By Kathryn McLean

My friend has changed her household’s diet this year. Heart health is top of mind, and eating “better” is a big part of that.

I’ve done my research, leaning heavily on Canada’s Heart and Stroke website, as well as Canada’s Food Guide recommendations. Ultimately, a healthy diet for your heart is simply a healthy diet.

So, what do professionals say about eating well for a healthy heart?

Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Resist processed foods and cut back on fats. Continue to eat protein, but not too much red meat. Choose whole grains over processed ones. And drink water.

I’m going to break down those recommendations. In this issue, I’ll discuss fruits and vegetables, and processed/prepared foods. Then, in the February issue, I’ll tackle protein and whole grains.

Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, fresh or frozen. Resist processed varieties.

What does that mean?

The more that any food product has been altered (cooked, packed with additional ingredients), the more it has been processed.

Fruits and vegetables in the produce aisle are not processed: they are fresh. Bagged frozen fruits and vegetables are usually just that: flash frozen fresh produce, ready for cooking or eating.

Processed fruits and vegetables include those that may already be cooked, and are packed with additional ingredients: fruit cocktail contains sugar and preservatives. Canned cream-style corn includes sugar, modified corn starch and salt.

Salads that are sold in tubs in the deli (like potato salad) are processed food.

More examples of processed foods include frozen pizzas, deli meat, boxed broth, instant noodles, frozen meals like pot pie and chicken burgers, and bottled condiments, sauces and dressings.

Store-bought salad dressings are an example of processed food. A popular grocery store dressing contains 18 ingredients, and three of those are processed before being added to the bottle.

Try to make your own dressings. The most basic salad dressing contains a fat (usually oil), an acid (such as vinegar or citrus juice), plus salt and pepper for seasoning.

Start with two parts olive oil and one part vinegar. Add a pinch of salt and pepper, and mix well. Check your cookbooks or the internet for thousands of variations.

Instead of buying frozen chicken burgers, pick up fresh boneless chicken pieces. Season them at home before baking so you can control what you add. Serve them in buns with the toppings you usually choose.

Cutting back on fat means less butter and oil, yes, but also the fat in your foods.

In the dairy case, reach for 5% cream in place of your usual table cream (18%). Replace 2% milk with 1%. You don’t have to do it all at once: try 2% milk on your cereal, but skim milk in your tea or coffee.

Try low fat cheese. If it isn’t for you, reduce how much of the usual variety you do eat: put less in your grilled cheese, serve burgers without cheese on top or reduce the number of times you reach for cheese in a week.

My friend reports that she has hardly any processed foods in her house now, makes her own dressings, and has easily switched to lighter versions of milk and cream.

Check back in February: I’ll discuss the (heart) healthy recommendations around whole grains and protein.