“A ‘cheat day’ never hurt anybody,” you’ll hear people say regarding diets. You eat well most of the time, so you deserve to treat yourself, right? As it turns out, indulging in foods that are high in both saturated fat and calories can have an immediate negative effect on your heart health.
A study published in March 2018 reported how the bodies of 10 healthy men responded to a milkshake consisting of 1,000 calories and 80 grams of saturated fat, which mainly is found in animal products and is considered to be an unhealthy fat. The results of the study showed that, within four hours, all participants had negative effects to their:
● Blood fats: Triglycerides and fatty acids significantly increased.
● Arteries: They were less able to relax and dilate by some measures.
● Blood cells: These changed in shape and started to interact in a way that created unhealthy enzymes, affecting arteries and blood vessels.
● Immune systems: The men’s immune systems reacted as if there was an infection.
In other words, even though patients often think about a heart-healthy lifestyle as what we do on average, it might be more accurate to think of it as a daily series of moments that add up, each with its own effect. Particularly unhealthy choices might have consequences, even if they’re just once in a while.
So, what is a patient with a sweet tooth supposed to do? Thankfully, people can preserve their heart health without following a terribly restrictive diet. Let’s discuss how to plan and maintain a healthy diet with treats sprinkled in – but perhaps fewer milkshakes.
How high-fat, high-calorie foods affect the heart
This study actually provides answers to many questions I hear from patients, such as:
● Does eating a lot of healthy food outweigh splurges on unhealthy food?
● Do I still have to watch what I eat if my cholesterol levels and blood pressure are in the healthy range?
● Is it OK to indulge in rich, fatty treats once in a while?
Many people think that as long as they eat some healthy food, it will outweigh the bad. But as the study shows, consuming unhealthy food has immediate consequences to the body that, when repeated over the course of a lifetime, can lead to unhealthy arteries. Don’t get me wrong; eating any amount of nutritious food benefits heart health, but that doesn’t make unhealthy foods any less bad.
When patients have healthy cholesterol levels and blood pressure readings, they sometimes think they don’t need to worry about eating well. However, we know that’s not true when looking at how quickly high-fat, high-calorie foods can impact our health. Healthy eating is important for any patient, regardless of the outcomes of individual laboratory tests. Also, try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, five days a week. A healthy diet and exercise go hand in hand for heart health.
4 tips for a healthy diet
In order to improve your diet, try outlining a routine in which your diet is consistently healthy without having to think much about it. Below are some tips to consider when making your plan:
1. Stock your home with healthy foods
When your home is full of healthy foods, it becomes work to find unhealthy food. Focus on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That way, if you really want a treat, you’ll have to put in extra effort to go get it.
2. Plan lunch and dinner in advance
Being busy can make it difficult to eat well consistently. I suggest preparing meals at home to eat at work for lunch each day. Also, make dinner plans in advance so you’re less tempted to purchase fast-food impulsively.
3. Make smoothies for breakfast
Smoothies are a great way to combine fruits and vegetables into a tasty, healthy meal. Plenty of healthy recipes are online that incorporate milk alternatives with less saturated fat than full-fat cow’s milk. You’ll be surprised how quickly this can become a healthy habit.
4. Don’t overdo cheat days
Cheat days or cheat meals don’t have to be laden with foods that are high in fat and calories. A few restaurant meals or rich treats can add up to several thousand calories more than you eat when you’re “being good” during the week. For example, feed your sweet tooth with low-fat yogurt or a few pieces of dark chocolate instead of a milkshake. We all have to live a little bit, so don’t be afraid that one rich meal will cause a heart attack or another heart event. But it’s important to remember that there’s no free ride to heart health, particularly for people at high risk for heart disease.
It’s never too late to improve your eating habits. In fact, doing so can improve your heart health and your risk for atherosclerosis, a disease in which plaque builds up quickly in your arteries. You have to work at it, so think it through, and make a plan. Moments can add up to a lifetime of heart health, so let’s take each one seriously.
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