Eat Heart Smart

It’s fitting that we celebrate American Heart Month at the same time as Valentine’s Day. Both holidays honor the health of your heart – physically and emotionally. One of the goals of the Family Nutrition Program is to improve health and prevent chronic diseases, like heart disease. While some risk factors cannot be changed, like family history of heart disease or age, many others are related to our lifestyles. So what does it mean to eat heart smart?

Nutrients to Limit

The Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium for good health. These same nutrients are also important for preventing heart disease.

Saturated fats can raise your blood cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of heart disease. Aim to limit saturated fat to less than 10% of calories, or less than 22 grams, each day. Saturated fats are found in animal products, dairy foods, and tropical plant oils (coconut and palm oil). Choose heart-healthy fats to cook with, like olive or canola oil, instead of lard, margarine or butter. Switch to lean animal protein foods, like 90% lean ground beef, skinless chicken thighs, or pork loin. Go meatless more often and plan more plant-based protein meals using beans, peas, soy foods, nuts, and seeds. Choose low-fat (1%) or nonfat (skim) milk and dairy foods.

Added sugars can increase your triglycerides (another type of fat in your blood), which increases the risk of heart disease. Reducing added sugars (and refined grains) in your diet can lower triglycerides and the risk of heart disease. Find tips for cutting back on added sugar here.

High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease. Eating too much sodium is a risk factor for high blood pressure. Aim for 2300 mg or less of sodium each day. Check the Nutrition Facts label of packaged foods and look for lower sodium options. A good rule of thumb is to keep the % Daily Value (%DV) under 20% per serving. Draining and rinsing canned foods can help remove excess sodium (up to 40%). Play around with herbs and spices to add flavor without sodium.

heart-shaped dishes of different colorful fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains

Beneficial Nutrients

While saturated fat can increase the risk of heart disease, there are also heart-healthy fats that reduce the risk. Unsaturated fats are typically oils (liquid at room temperature) that come from plants. Olive oil is a good source of monounsaturated fat while canola oil is a good source of polyunsaturated fats. Avocados are also full of heart-healthy fats, even though we tend to think of them as fruits. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats can reduce the risk of heart disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that promote healthy hearts.  Seafood is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids. The Dietary Guidelines recommend 2 servings of seafood each week in order to get enough omega-3s. Salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines are the best sources of omega-3s. Other foods with omega-3 fats are walnuts, flaxseed (either oil or ground), and canola oil.

Fiber is an important nutrient for blood cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber found in whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables can help your body eliminate excess LDL (bad) cholesterol. Oats are especially high in heart-healthy fiber. Not only does fiber improve your heart health, but it is also important for proper bowel function and keeps you feeling fuller longer.

Eating smart for heart health is as simple as following MyPlate and the Dietary Guidelines. Think about what areas you can improve your diet and start with that. Should you find leaner cuts of meat to cook? Switch to lower fat dairy? Use the Nutrition Facts label to choose lower sodium options? Or use whole grain versions of your usual breads, pastas, or cereals? You know the best changes to make based on your current habits, taste preferences, and cooking abilities. If you have any questions, we are here to assist you in making smart choices for heart health. Happy Valentine’s Day and best wishes for a heart-healthy lifestyle!

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