With February declared Heart Month, many countries and organizations around the world are encouraging us all to start good habits now that will improve heart health not just for February but for life.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease is the leading global cause of death, with 2,200 Americans dying each day from heart disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that a poor diet is one of the most influential lifestyle choices that put people at a higher risk for heart disease, and a nutritious, balanced diet is a major factor in combating the most common type of heart disease, coronary artery disease, which results from a build-up in coronary arteries.
Thankfully though diet can be easily modified, with the British Heart Foundation (BHF) also adding that even if already have a heart condition, a healthy diet can still benefit your heart and overall health.
Here we round up some expert advice from the AHA, CDC, and BHF on how everyone can maintain and enjoy a heart-healthy diet.
Fruit and vegetables
Aim for at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day for a well-balanced diet.
Try to vary the types of fruit and vegetables you eat; Carleton Rivers, MS, RDN, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences in the University of Alabama, Birmingham School of Health Professions and program director of the UAB Dietetic Internship advises, “Choose vegetables that have a rich color like dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots and zucchini.”
“Just be sure not to substitute fresh fruits with 100 percent fruit juice or dried fruit,” she adds, which can be higher in sugar and lower in fiber than fresh fruit.
However although fresh is great, the BHF notes that frozen and tinned also count.
And as a guide a portion is around a handful (80g or 3oz) of fruit or veg, for example 4 broccoli florets, 1 pear, 3 heaped tablespoons of carrots, and 7-8 strawberries.
Too much saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood, which can increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease. Try to reduce your intake of fatty cuts of beef, lamb, and pork and poultry skin, and dairy products such as lard, cream, butter, and cheese.
Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated “good” fats can help boost heart health. Add in monounsaturated fats, for example olive oil, rapeseed oil, almonds, unsalted cashews and avocado, or polyunsaturated fats, such as sunflower oil and vegetable oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds and oily fish.
However remember that all fats and oils — including the healthier ones — are high in calories, so even unsaturated fats should only be used in small amounts.
Fiber and protein
“Fiber is important for gastrointestinal motility, blood sugar control and lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol,” Rivers said. “Fiber is great for appetite control because it can fill you up and keep you feeling fuller for longer.”
Whole, fresh fruit and vegetables are good sources of fiber, as are whole grains such as brown rice, wild rice, whole oats, and wholegrain barley, and legumes, beans and peas.
Protein is also needed as part of a balanced diet to build and maintain muscles and can be found in a variety of sources such as lean meats cooked using a low-fat method, such as baking.
Eating too much salt can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure, which in turn can increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease.
Try seasoning your food with herbs and spices for extra flavor to reduce your salt intake.
Stick to the recommended guidelines and remember, everything in moderation.
Treat yourself too
Although the AHA, CDC, and BHF all encourage a heart-healthy diet, Rivers says a “cheat day” is OK occasionally and a little bit of what you like rather than depriving yourself entirely will help you stick to a nutritious eating plan.
Your favorite piece of chocolate or guacamole and tortilla chips are what Rivers recommends as two heart-healthy treats to have on “cheat days,” adding that, “The occasional bite of dark chocolate or a nice glass of pinot noir is a perfect reward for your efforts to sustain your heart health.”