Every athlete knows the value of a healthy and strong heart. It is, after all, the most important muscle in your body. And while exercise is important for keeping any muscle strong, diet plays an essential part of having a healthy heart.
So with that in mind, here are six heart-healthy nutritional tips that any athlete can benefit from!
1. VARIETY IS KEY
The American Heart Association recommends eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients, but are lower in calories. Some of the best choices included plenty of vegetables, whole grains and dairy products that are low in fat. The ideal protein sources are poultry, fish and nuts. You can also use protein supplements. Try to eat red meat in moderation.
At the same time, avoid nutrient-poor foods. Cutting out nutrient-poor foods from your diet is not just better for your heart, but better for your physique as a whole – as they’re often high in calories but supply little in the way of benefits to your body. Foods that are high in sugar typically fall into this category. Cutting out baked goods, salty snacks, and sweets will also help you get lean and stay lean.
2. LIMIT SODIUM
Why limit sodium? The truth is, you’re likely getting too much of it in your diet already, and too much sodium can contribute to high blood pressure. It also causes you to retain water, which for an athlete adds additional weight and can blur your muscle definition. The American Heart Association recommends you cap your sodium intake at 1,500mg a day.
Did you know that most Americans consume more than double that? It’s true, and it’s not from the salt shaker at your dinner table either. Processed foods are loaded with sodium. One easy way to ensure you avoid excess sodium in your diet is by avoiding processed foods and limiting your trips to restaurants – especially fast-food restaurants. When grocery shopping be sure to check all labels and nutrition facts to ensure you’re buying the foods with the least amount of sodium.
3. AVOID PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE OILS AND TRANS FATS
You’ve no doubt heard of trans fats before, but did you know there are two types of trans fatty acids? There are naturally occurring trans fatty acids, which are found in small amounts in dairy and meat. The second kind of trans fatty acids is artificial trans fats called “partially hydrogenated” fats. These fats are a man-made saturated fat that is solid at room temperature. These trans fats are bad because they replace real saturated fat and essential fats in the membranes of cells throughout your body, decreasing healthy HDL cholesterol and increasing LDL (bad) cholesterol and your risk of heart disease at the same time. The American Heart Association recommends you limit trans fat consumption to a mere 2g per day. We recommend you avoid any foods that list “partially hydrogentated” anything on the nutrition panel and ensure that any trans fats you do consume are naturally occurring in healthy meats and eggs.
4. EAT FISH AT LEAST TWICE A WEEK
Omega-3s in particular are important polyunsaturated fats and are found in fish like salmon, mackerel, trout and catfish. Polyunsaturated fats can help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in your blood, which can in turn lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. They also provide protein and nutrients to help keep your body’s cells healthy and contribute the antioxidant vitamin E to your diet.
The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fatty fish each week – just don’t deep fry it!
5. LIMIT ALCOHOL
Don’t just limit alcohol for heart-health reasons. Although it does carry the potential for increased triglycerides (fat) in your blood, and can increase blood pressure, from a physique standpoint, alcohol has a host of effects on your body that aren’t all that great for getting bigger and stronger. That beer or two or three at the end of a long day does more than just add some calories to your diet that packs on belly fat, it can slow your muscle growth and interfere with your post-workout recovery. If you want to keep up with the competition and get as big and strong as fast as possible, you’ll think twice about the suds.
6. EAT MORE VEGETABLES AND FRUITS
Vegetables and fruits are fantastic sources of vitamins and minerals. They are also low in calories and rich in dietary fiber, which is key to any heart-healthy diet. When you feature vegetables and fruits, try to eat them raw as much as possible or lightly baked to ensure you get the full nutritional value these superstars contain. Choose recipes that have vegetables or fruits as the main ingredients, such as vegetable stir-fry or fresh fruit mixed into salads. It’s a small addition to your diet, but one your body will thank you for.