by Austin Gerth
In addition to containing Valentine’s Day, the most heart-centric holiday, February also marks American Heart Month, which exists to raise awareness about the importance of having a healthy heart for one’s overall well-being.
One way to improve your heart health this month is to eat healthy.
Denise Reiners, a dietitian at Cambridge Medical Center, supplied some tips for those wondering what dietary changes they can make this month to improve or maintain their heart’s health.
Reiners cited three dietary resources as helpful for understanding heart conscious eating. She recommends looking into the research-backed DASH Diet plan, which is high in fruits and vegetables, as well as the American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines.
Adopting a heart-healthy diet has benefits for not only the heart but other aspects of a person’s well-being as well.
“If you’re following a heart-healthy diet, then typically you would be able to achieve and maintain a healthier weight,” Reiners said.
A heart healthy diet can also lower a person’s likelihood of cancer.
If you’re looking for a diet that will keep your heart at peak performance, then what you need basically boils down to “vegetables, fruits, whole grains, a plant-based diet,” Reiners said.
Springing for foods that contain mono- and poly-unsaturated fats instead of saturated or trans fats is another good way to keep your diet heart friendly, Reiners said.
Unsaturated fats are normally liquid, and they typically come from plants. Olive oil or vegetable oil are examples. Saturated fats are generally animal fats, and they are typically solid at room temperature, Reiners explained. Trans fats are fats that have altered; they may have originated as a liquid, plant-based oil, but adding hydrogen to them makes them solid.
Not all plant-derived oils are created equal, however, and Reiners suggests people should do their research when it comes to trendy cooking ingredients.
“A lot of people are into coconut oil right now,” she said, “but that actually has a lot of saturated fats.”
Reiners said that eating fiber is also important for a person’s heart health.
“Getting enough fiber in your diet – like 25 to 35 grams in your diet would be recommended per day.”
Other elements of a healthy diet Reiners recommends are avoiding sodium, added sugars, sugar-sweetened beverages, heavily processed meats and some red meats. She suggests paying attention to nutrition labels when buying food as well.
Regular exercise is also an important component of heart health. Reiners suggested 2 1/2 hours of moderate exercise per week, like walking, or 1 1/2 hours of vigorous exercise, like running, or an equivalent combination of both types.
For more information on American Heart Month and heart health, Reiners recommends the following websites: allinahealth.gov, heart.org and the USDA Dietary Guidelines at health.gov. Information on the DASH Diet can be found at dashdiet.org.
15 hearty-healthy foods
■ Eat fish high in omega-3s, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and trout.
■ A handful of healthy nuts such as almonds or walnuts will satisfy your hunger and help your heart.
■ Berries are chock full of heart-healthy phytonutrients and soluble fiber. Try blueberries, strawberries, cranberries or raspberries in cereal or yogurt.
■ Flaxseeds contain omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and phytoestogens to boost heart health. Take them in ground or milled form to reap the greatest benefit.
■ Oatmeal: the comfort-food nutrient powerhouse.
■ Dark beans,such as kidney or black beans, are high in fiber, B-vitamins, minerals and other good stuff. Veggie chili, anyone?
■ A 4-ounce glass of red wine (up to two for men and one for women per day) can help improve good (HDL) cholesterol levels.
■ Try marinated tofu in a stir-fry with fresh veggies for a heart-healthy lunch or dinner.
■ Red, yellow and orange veggies such as carrots, sweet potatoes, red peppers and acorn squash are packed with carotenoids, fiber and vitamins to help your heart.
■ Popeye was right – spinach packs a punch! Use it in sandwiches and salads instead of lettuce.
■ Fruits such as oranges, cantaloupes and papaya are rich in beta-carotene, potassium, magnesium and fiber.
■ Tender, sweet asparagus is filled with mighty nutrients such as beta-carotene, folate and fiber, and only provide 25 calories per cup, or 5 calories per large spear.
■ Tomatoes – even sun-dried varieties in winter months – provide lycopene, vitamin C and alpha- and beta-carotene.
■ Dark chocolate is good for your heart health, but just be sure that it’s at least 70 percent cocoa.
■ Crisp, fresh broccoli florets dipped in hummus are a terrific heart-healthy snack with a whopping list of nutrients, including vitamins C and E, potassium, folate, calcium and fiber.