How do you plan to celebrate American Heart Month?

hands holding a string of paper hearts up to the sun during sunDid you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, taking more lives each year than cancer?

Did you know that heart disease is the number one killer of women and that 90% of us have at least one heart disease related risk factor? I find this information disconcerting, if not downright scary. This seems like something every woman should know and act upon.

During the month of February we celebrate American Heart Month. This is an opportunity to bring awareness to a heart-healthy lifestyle and ask the question, what can I do, right now, to help prevent and even reverse heart disease?

Eating a heart-healthy diet is one step on the path to preventing heart disease. Making small changes in your daily diet can reap big health benefits.

Here are five ways to eat heart-healthy:

Limit The Salt In Your Diet

Eating a lot of salt (or sodium) can lead to high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. You can reduce the amount of salt in your diet by limiting what you add to recipes and your daily meals. A big source of the salt we consume comes from canned and processed foods. Reading labels and buying low sodium versions of your favorite foods is one way to reduce your daily intake of sodium. Another option is to make more of your meals from scratch, using fresh ingredients and herbs for flavoring.

Say Yes To Whole Grains And High Fiber Foods

Fiber helps you feel full longer and can help lower bad cholesterol, and whole grains are higher in fiber and nutrients than processed and refined foods. What should you be eating? Try whole-grain breads, high-fiber cereals (5 or more grams of fiber per serving), brown rice, wild rice, whole-grain pasta, steel-cut oatmeal and ground flaxseed. What should you be removing from your diet? Skip the white bread, frozen waffles, donuts, granola bars, high-sugar breakfast cereals, flavored oatmeal, cakes, pies and crackers.

Load Up On Fruits and Vegetables 

Fruits and veggies are low in calories and high in fiber, making them a smart choice for a heart- healthy diet. They’re a good source of the vitamins and minerals your body needs, and there are substances found in plants that may help prevent cardiovascular disease. A few tips for adding fruits and veggies to your diet include:

  • Make your veggies finger food. Wash and cut up carrots, celery, or cucumbers (use whatever vegetables you like) ahead of time and have them ready for snacking.
  • Keep fruit handy. Have a bowl of apples, oranges and bananas on the counter as a go-to healthy snack.
  • Tuck fruits and veggies into your purse or backpack. Make it easy to bring along that bag of carrot sticks or bunch of grapes.
  • Plan your meals to include more fruits and veggies. Start dinner with a fruit salad or have fresh fruit for dessert. Pick a vegetable side dish like asparagus or Brussels sprouts to go along with your grilled chicken.
  • Cook with veggies, adding them to your recipes for a boost in fiber and nutrients. Toss a cup of broccoli into your spaghetti sauce, use salsa as a topping or add veggie meatballs to that pasta dish.

Love the Good Fats

Your cholesterol levels play an important role in your heart health. There is good cholesterol (your HDL), and bad cholesterol (your LDL). Unhealthy levels of the bad cholesterol can put you at greater risk for heart disease. What can you do to help manage your cholesterol levels? Love the good fats.

Saturated and trans fats are the bad guys, the ones you want to eliminate from your diet. Unsaturated fats like monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are the good guys. How can you tell the difference? Generally, most “bad” fats are solid at room temperature. Here are a few simple ways to love the good fats:

  • Stay away from solid fats like butter, margarine, lard, bacon fat, or shortenings.
  • When food shopping, buy lean meats.
  • Make your salad more substantial by adding almonds or avocado slices – both have plenty of good fats.
  • Find new toppings to replace those with saturated and trans fats. Substitute nonfat plain yogurt for sour cream; put salsa on that baked potato; and don’t butter your bread: use a low fat fruit spread instead.
  • When cooking, replace margarine, butter or lard with healthy oils like olive, canola or sunflower oil.
  • Read the labels: it may say “reduced fat,” but is it really healthy? Look for hidden and bad fats like lard or the words “partially hydrogenated” (that’s a fancy word for trans fats). Check the amount of fat in your breakfast cereal – you might just be surprised what you find.

Include Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Your Diet

Add fish to your diet. Replacing a meat dish with a fish entrée once or twice a week is a smart way to further reduce the unhealthy fat from your diet. Certain fish have the added benefit of being high in omega-3 fatty acids, a substance that helps in the fight against bad cholesterol and works to keep your heart healthy. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, mackerel, trout and herring.

So how do you plan to celebrate American Heart Month? I’m starting with a trip to my local market to pick up some fresh fruit, veggies, non-fat Greek yogurt, salmon and the list goes on…

I’m celebrating by eating heart-healthy and making it a daily habit.