After a Heart Event: Reading a Food Nutrition Label


After a Heart Event: Reading a Food Nutrition Label

So, you have had a heart event, now what? You are probably scared and have asked your doctors, friends and neighbors a million questions to try to prevent it from ever happening again. Joyce Jacobs, RN, MSN, a Nurse Navigator with St. Elizabeth Heart and Vascular Institute has some advice on reading a food nutrition label to help you stay heart healthy.

Joyce is an expert on helping people through all of the questions following a heart event. At St. Elizabeth Healthcare, she leads a monthly support group for women called “Healing Hearts,” and teaches an eight-week class called “Take Time for Your Heart.”

Joyce advises the importance of a food nutrition label starts with meal planning and shopping. She says, “Before I even teach people how to read a food label I want them to start menu planning each week. By planning a weekly menu, you head to the grocery store with a list.”

Food Labels Start with Shopping Lists

How many times have you gone grocery shopping and come home and thought you have nothing to cook for dinner? A list will help you make a plan and likely save you money.

Joyce recommends you first try to buy items from the perimeter of the grocery store. Grocery stores are designed to have the fresh, natural products on the perimeter. These products don’t necessarily have food labels—fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meat. Try to plan your menu using those items first. Try to avoid the inside aisles where the processed foods are located.

Joyce says, “Mayo Clinic recommends you eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day. If you meet those daily recommendations, you won’t be hungry for a lot of the junk food that may fill your diet today.”

Using the Food Nutrition Label to Improve Your Heart Health

There is a lot of information on a single food label, and it can be difficult to know exactly what to look for. Joyce recommends the following six tips to help you when shopping.

  1. If you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it. When you see ingredients on a label and you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it. You should not put something in your body that you cannot understand.
  2. Don’t be fooled by packaging. Some labels are designed to trick you. Some use the term low-calorie, but the serving size is smaller than usual. Bread companies will use the term wheat bread, but it may be enriched wheat flour, which is very different than the recommended whole grain bread.
  3. Watch serving size. The serving size is very important when you are counting your daily calories, sodium, fat and carbohydrates. When you are comparing two labels in a store, don’t just look at nutrition value, make sure the serving sizes are comparable as well. One may look like a lower calorie food, but the serving size may be very different.
  4. Limit sodium to 2,300 mg a day. Sodium can raise your blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2300 mg a day. If you have congestive heart failure, your doctor may recommend a lower sodium intake. Cereals, breads, soups and condiments contain a large amount of sodium. Adding up your daily intake will help you keep your heart healthy. Tip: avoid the salt shaker and use fresh herbs or spices.
  5. Avoid saturated fats. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and include butter, Crisco, bacon grease, and fats on proteins such as steak, chicken and turkey. Saturated fats increase your cholesterol and your risk for heart disease. Always buy lean meat. Total fats per day should make up 20-25 percent of your total daily calories. Tip: lean ground turkey should only have three grams of fat, if it is higher it probably contains the skin and dark meat.
  6. Only 900-1,300 calories a day should come from carbohydrates on a 2,000 calorie diet. Many people who have heart disease also have diabetes. If you have diabetes you should consult your doctor for daily recommended allowances of sugar and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are sugars or starches and serve as the main source of energy in your body. On a food label, both dietary fiber and sugar make up the total carbohydrate number. In 2020, food labels will start to show added sugars but today added sugars and natural sugars are listed together under sugar. Added sugar should make up less than 10 percent of your total calories.

Joyce adds, “The good news is new food labels will be used in 2020 and will be easier to understand with larger print. I know it takes longer to shop when you read the food label, but it is helping keep your heart health. Take the time to read the labels.”

St. Elizabeth Heart & Vascular Institute recognizes women heart survivors have particular needs and have a support group just for women—Healing Hearts. The support group meets the second Tuesday of every month at 9 a.m. at St. Elizabeth Edgewood. To learn more and reserve a spot call (859) 301-WELL or visit