When most people think of hearts in February, I’m sure they’re thinking of chocolate hearts, candy hearts, and valentines. Like you, I definitely give plenty of thought to those kinds of hearts. But I also think of the other kind of hearts – the ones beating in everyone’s chest. See, February is American Heart Month. For over 50 years, dietitians, other medical professionals, and health educators have been focusing on heart health during the month of February and urging others to do the same. And it makes sense – our hearts are pretty important, and heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US.
It doesn’t need to be that way. Healthy lifestyle choices can go a long way toward reducing the risk of heart disease. There are a few key lifestyle factors that can help your heart – and the rest of you – be healthier:
- Don’t smoke – smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease, but if you quit, you can reduce your risk. Avoid secondhand smoke as much as possible too, and remember that e-cigarettes also contain chemicals that are dangerous for your health.
- Be active – 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week is recommended for adults, and kids should get even more. Exercise helps to regulate blood sugar, can lower blood pressure, and helps with weight maintenance. It’s also a great way to reduce stress. Speaking of stress…
- Decrease stress – stress can increase risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, and also can lead people to behaviors that increase health risks, like smoking, drinking too much alcohol, and overeating. There are lots of great ways to decrease stress – find what works for you!
- Know your numbers – see your medical provider to find out key health measurements that affect heart health including blood pressure, fasting blood sugar, cholesterol, and BMI. If any of these are high, you could be at an increased risk of heart disease, so work on bringing them down.
- Take a peek at your eating habits – a heart healthy diet doesn’t have to be boring or difficult to follow! Here are a few keys to eating a heart-healthy diet.
Keys to Heart Healthy Eating:
Fill up on fiber! Eating fiber is so important for keeping your entire body healthy. It helps your heart by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. For the most benefit, be sure to get both insoluble fiber, found in whole grains, wheat cereals, and vegetables like carrots, celery and tomatoes, and soluble fiber, in foods like barley, oats, beans, nuts, and fruits like apples, pears, berries, and citrus fruits.
Speaking of fruits and veggies, they have other heart benefits besides fiber. They are full of antioxidants, which fight cell damage, as well as vitamins and minerals including potassium, which has been shown to lower blood pressure. Most people should aim for 1 ½-2 cups of fruit and 2-2 ½ cups of vegetables a day.
Whether you call it a fruit or a vegetable, avocados are a great source of healthy fat, another key to a heart healthy diet. Olives, olive oil, nuts and seeds are other foods that contain healthy fat – they are all high in unsaturated fat, the kind that your heart prefers. Also aim to include sources of Omega 3 fatty acids from fatty fish, walnuts or flaxseeds which are especially heart healthy, helping to lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and improving the health of blood vessels. On the other hand, put a limit on saturated fats, found in fatty meats and full-fat dairy, and do your best to avoid trans fats, which are most often found in fried foods and commercial baked goods, as these increase your risk of heart disease.
Sodium is a mineral that our bodies need in small amounts, but most Americans get way too much. Unfortunately, because sodium pulls water into the bloodstream, high intakes can lead to increased blood pressure. People who are salt sensitive are even more likely to have this happen. Most people should limit their sodium intake to 2300 mg a day. The salt shaker isn’t the most common way people consume salt – processed foods are generally loaded with it! So the best way to cut your intake is to eat less processed foods!
Sugar makes a lot of foods more enjoyable, but there’s nothing about sugar that we absolutely need, and unfortunately, sugar is another one of those things that can increase the risk for heart disease. But that doesn’t mean it has to be strictly off limits – just try to keep your intake in check. Most people don’t need to worry about naturally occurring sugar, the kind found in fruit and dairy foods. Added sugar is the culprit – anything added to foods during processing or preparation. Be especially careful of sweetened drinks – it’s really easy to consume large amounts of added sugar this way without even realizing it.
With all of this said, please understand that I’m not trying to encourage some kind of “perfect” diet. In fact, there is no perfect diet. I wholeheartedly believe that any and all foods can fit in a balanced, healthy eating plan (as long as you’re not allergic or intolerant, of course!) So have some chocolates on Valentine’s Day, pie on Thanksgiving, and cake on your birthday. Just don’t eat them all every day 😉