February not only brings us Valentine’s Day, but also the message of “be good to your heart” with American Hearth month.
Despite a 30 percent decline in cardiovascular disease death rates from 1998 to 2008, heart disease continues to be the leading killer of Americans. Our day-to-day lifestyle choices are the primary influence on the prevention of heart disease. We all could do a better job to lose weight, quit tobacco, manage blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and increase exercise.
The foods that we choose to put into our bodies greatly influence our health, especially heart health. Cholesterol blood levels were thought to be the primary marker of heart disease, so the original dietary recommendations were to lower intake of foods high in cholesterol. Eliminating eggs, butter, cream, fatty meats and shellfish were top recommendations. Then the focus moved from low-fat and fat-free diets in the 1990s to limiting saturated and trans fats.
Now, decades of research indicate that we need to have a broader perspective on diet. It’s not just one nutrient or food item that determines heart health. Heart health is achieved through a combination of lifestyle factors, including stopping tobacco use, preventing diabetes, exercising most days of the week and eating a heart-healthy diet. Here’s a summary of what a heart-healthy diet looks like:
Four to five servings of fruit and vegetables every day. The average American doesn’t even hit three daily servings of fruit and veggies. An easy approach to make sure you get enough is to include two pieces of fruit plus a salad and one other veggie serving.
Include three servings of whole grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat bread and quinoa. Most Americans eat less than one daily serving of whole grains. We definitely eat too many refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, refined cold cereals and sugar. Studies indicate that by replacing the “white stuff” with whole grains, we would lower our risk of heart disease, plus lose a few pounds.
Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. No more than 450 calories (about 36 ounces) per week of soda, sweet tea or similar beverages.
Include a handful of nuts or seeds each day. Choose walnuts, almonds, or any other nut or seed. They make a satisfying snack, and studies show that a handful a day actually helps manage weight.
Use liquid oil. Olive and canola oils are at the top of the list, but you are welcome use any liquid oil, such as safflower or corn oil.
Include lean protein. For heart health, beans are your best choice in the protein category. Not only are they nutritional powerhouses, with protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber, but also they are some of the least expensive foods in your grocery cart. Fish, especially those high in omega-three fatty acids, is highly recommended. Aim for a fish meal two or three times a week. When you eat chicken or turkey, be sure to avoid eating the skin — that is where all the fat and saturated fat is found. (By the way, those chicken wings you ate last weekend during the Super Bowl are mostly chicken skin.) Limit (or even eliminate) your intake of processed meats, meaning all types of lunch meats, bacon, ham or other cured or processed meats. These foods are associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
Since it is Heart Month and Valentine’s Day all wrapped into one, I’m going to share a really easy chocolate recipe with you. This comes from the eatingwell.com website, which has quite a nice lineup of nutritious and delicious recipes. Be good to your heart, and enjoy!
Nancy Goodale Graham is a registered dietitian and coordinates the cardiovascular wellness and prevention programs at the Cardiovascular Wellness and Rehabilitation department at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.