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A guide to heart healthy eating out in the Twin Cities

HealthPartners dietitian explains how to make the best heart healthy restaurant choices when you go out to eat.


By Gina Houmann, MPH, RDN, LD
May 14, 2018

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I love that the Twin Cities is gaining fame as a must-visit spot in the United States. We’re “luring curious foodies” from around the world as the Wall Street Journal puts it – and I would 100 percent agree that our restaurant scene is top-notch! While heart healthy restaurant choices often are hard to come by in the form of national chains, our local restaurants in Minneapolis/St. Paul make heart healthy eating out much easier. The chefs here know how to create fresh, unique options that are both bursting with flavor and beautiful on a plate. And they make many of their dishes with better-for-you ingredients and prepare them without excessive amounts of salt and butter – which absolutely thrills me as a registered dietitian!

How to find these healthy eating out options in the Twin Cities

We all should really be more mindful of the fuel we’re putting in our bodies. And when you’re eating with heart nutrition in mind, it’s particularly key to pay close attention to the food choices you make. This is especially true at restaurants, where we usually don’t see exactly how our meals are cooked or even what all is put into them.

Researching a restaurant’s menu from home before going there can help a lot. I use this strategy myself – and it’s one that the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends, too. When you’re going to eat out for a meal, try to make a habit of first looking closely at ingredients and finding out how dishes are prepared. For example, are the vegetables deep-fried or stir-fried? Is the chicken baked or breaded and fried? If you can decide which heart healthy dish you will order before you arrive, you can be more successful in picking the dish that is right for you and your health goals. And if lots of menu choices tend to overwhelm you (like they do me), you’ll find that this approach also helps make ordering less stressful.

When you’re focused on heart nutrition, there are certain foods that are important to eat regularly. A big part of healthy eating out is finding restaurant dishes that include these foods.

  • All vegetables – including potatoes and squash
    Vegetables of all kinds are key to a diet that boosts your heart health. Potassium-rich potatoes and squash both can help with lowering blood pressure – as long as you don’t eat them fried or loaded with butter and sugar. And asparagus, bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli and leafy greens like spinach are full of a variety of other nutrients that fight heart disease in other ways. Choose fresh or frozen veggies whenever possible. Canned veggies are OK too, but verify that they are rinsed or that the canned option is marked low-sodium or no salt added.
  • Fish like salmon, mackerel, trout and tuna
    The omega-3 fatty acids in fish help lower your blood pressure. When deciding on a protein for your meal, choose the fish, chicken or turkey option rather than the red meat option. Red meat has a high level of saturated fat. And that’s what raises your bad cholesterol.
  • Beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils
    These are a great fiber source that can lower bad cholesterol. They are also a heart-healthy protein option, so try any of them in place of meat. But like with canned veggies, be careful that these foods haven’t been drowned in salt.
  • Walnuts
    Walnuts are a great energizer and satisfier of hunger. Plus, these nuts are a superfood when it comes to heart nutrition. When you replace buttery snacks (think chips, crackers, cookies and movie theater-style popcorn) with a handful of these instead, you cut your bad cholesterol and raise your good cholesterol. If you don’t like the flavor of walnuts, you can opt for almonds, cashews, pistachios, flaxseed or chia seeds.
  • Raspberries, acai berries, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries
    These kinds of berries give your body fiber and vitamin C. Both can lower your bad cholesterol and risk of having a stroke.
  • Bananas, apricots, oranges and cantaloupe
    These potassium-rich fruits help your heart beat regularly. They can help lower your blood pressure, too.
  • Oatmeal or other oat-based cereals
    The amount of fiber in oatmeal is what makes it so heart healthy. Fiber is key for lowering your bad cholesterol and blood pressure.
  • Avocado
    Avocados are a great source of good fats that lower your bad cholesterol. They also help protect your arteries from inflammation and hardening.

Are there any restaurants that have heart healthy options?

You can use healthydiningfinder.com to find healthy eating out options around the Twin Cities. And keep your eyes peeled for menus that use the AHA’s Heart-Check mark, too. Menu items with this mark next to them have met the AHA’s heart nutrition standards.

How to make heart healthy restaurant choices wherever you are eating out:

  • Order a grilled option from the menu – not a fried one.
  • Ask for light cheese on your entrée – or do without it altogether.
  • Request that no extra salt gets added to your meal when it’s being prepared.
  • Choose salad instead of soup for your starter – as many soups tend to have high salt content.
  • Opt for whole-grain bread choices over white bread, and brown or whole-grain rice over white rice.
  • Don’t lather your meals with butter or margarine. Instead choose olive oil.
  • Say no to mayo, ketchup and sour cream – or at least limit these condiments to small amounts.
  • If your meal comes with fried and starchy sides, sub fresh fruit or a salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dressing instead.
  • Ask for a box right away! The portion sizes that restaurants offer are almost always too big for a single serving. Divide your meal right away, and bring one half home with you for the next day.
  • Pair your meal with water, black coffee or unsweetened tea.

While it is possible to make heart healthy restaurant choices in the Twin Cities, cooking meals yourself is still the best way to ensure you’re giving your heart nutrition it needs.

There will always be some unknowns when it comes to the nutrition that’s packed in a meal from a restaurant. Even if you know what foods make up the dish, it’s hard to know exactly how much of each ingredient actually went into your specific plate – especially when it comes to things like salts, seasonings, butters and cooking oils. That’s why I encourage you to plan your own heart healthy meals and be the chef as often as you can.

You’ll be best informed of the nutrients your body is getting if you keep restaurant dining to a minimum (or at least do it in moderation). Plus, there’s other benefits of cooking at home, too. You’ll likely find yourself saving some money. That could ease financial stress that’s also not good for your heart. And if you choose to host your own dinner parties rather than meeting friends out at a restaurant, you won’t be peer-pressured into making a meal choice that doesn’t fit into the diet prescribed to by your cardiologist or registered dietitian. (Nor will you be under pressure from a server to make your visit with your friends quick!)

About Gina Houmann, MPH, RDN, LD

Gina Houmann is a Program Manager for several organization-wide nutrition programs at HealthPartners Institute. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. Gina enjoys partnering with clinicians across HealthPartners and Park Nicollet to provide nutrition programs and resources to better serve patients. Previously, she provided nutrition counseling and education for patients at Melrose Center. In her free time, Gina enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband, 5-year-old son and 2-year-old twin daughters.

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