Contributor: Julia Zumpano, RD, LD
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Thinking about giving up eating meat to become more heart-healthy? Reducing your intake of animal fats and plant-based sources of saturated fat can have a significant impact on reducing the artery-clogging “bad” cholesterol, called LDL cholesterol, in your blood.
Vegetarians can meet all of their nutrient needs by eating a balanced diet of
- Nuts and seeds.
- Whole grains.
- Plant-derived oils such as olive, avocado, peanut and canola.
Try a phased-in approach
If you’ve been a meat and dairy eater all your life, try phasing in your new way of eating, rather than trying to do it all at once. Some people find gradual changes over time easier to adopt and maintain.
You could phase in a new change every week, every two weeks or whatever pace you can handle best. Or try going meatless once a week and gradually increasing the number of days each week or every couple of weeks. Even though it may feel like your progress is slow, know that you will achieve your goal eventually as long as you stick with it.
For example, try first to eliminate red meat. The next step could be to eliminate dark meat, skin, and fat in poultry or eliminate poultry all together — and so on.
Be sure to replace meat with lean vegetarian sources of protein such as beans or legumes, tofu or soy-based products. Nuts also are a good protein source, but are high in fat, so try to limit nuts to about an ounce a day.
The importance of iron
One area that vegetarians need to pay attention to is iron intake.
If you tend to be anemic, talk to your health care provider about taking a daily iron supplement.
Choose the right fruits
All fruits and vegetables can fit into a heart-healthy diet. Choose fresh fruits as often as possible, and limit dried fruits, canned fruits and juices.
Berries such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and cherries are among the lowest in sugar and the highest in fiber and nutritional content per serving.
Melons, on the other hand, tend to be higher in sugar, so watch your intake of this fruit.
All fruit contains sugar, so choose smaller pieces of fruit or limit the portion to a cup per serving.
Avoid starchy vegetables
Among vegetables, dark leafy greens have a more favorable nutritional profile. So choose spinach, kale, swiss chard, broccoli rabe or romaine lettuce when you can.
Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, peas, and corn are less advised due to the higher carbohydrate and lower nutrient content per serving. These are all right to eat regularly, but in moderation.
With vegetables as well as fruits, try to eat a wide variety of colors to ensure you are getting a broad range of nutrients. The darker or more vivid the color, the better.
Nuts are a good source of healthy fats and protein, so they will be an important nutrient source for vegetarians. Almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts have been shown to be the most heart-beneficial because they provide more healthy fats.
Peanuts and cashews have a slightly higher level of saturated fat, but you can still include them in moderation.
Avoid macadamia nuts and pecans due their high levels of saturated fat and lower protein content.
Low-fat dairy is best
If you decide to be the kind of vegetarian who eats milk and other dairy products, know that dairy can be safely included in a heart-healthy diet as long as you choose low-fat or part-skim varieties.
Keep in mind that dairy does carry saturated fat, so if you’re eating heart-healthy, you’ll want to minimize intake of these foods.
A dairy alternative, such as almond or walnut or cashew milk, does not contain saturated fat or contains very little. So these alternative milks could be a better choice if you are attempting to decrease animal products from your diet.