February is the month when images of hearts are just about everywhere you look. They're on Valentine cards, candy, clothes and more.
But those aren't the hearts that matter most. If you want to give a meaningful gift to your loved ones, here is a suggestion. Make a commitment to taking good care of your heart with a heart-healthy diet. Along with getting regular exercise and not smoking, a healthy diet is a key step.
The American Heart Association, or AHA, reports 58.8 million Americans have heart disease. It is now the leading cause of death among both men and women. Every year, it kills 950,000 Americans. And with every heart lost, many more are broken. So it's important to do all you can to keep your heart strong and healthy.
When it comes to eating a healthy diet, Americans have a long way to go. The AHA says less than 1 percent of U.S. adults meet the definition for "Ideal Healthy Diet." Virtually no children meet the goal.
Eight steps to a heart-healthy diet
Changing your eating habits takes effort. But it's definitely worth it. The first step is knowing what a heart-healthy diet is. The experts at MayoClinic.com offer eight steps that will start you in the right direction. Here is a summary of their helpful ideas.
Limit unhealthy fats and cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a waxy material that can build up in your arteries and lead to blockage. So limiting unhealthy fats and cholesterol in your diet is very important. The AHA offers these guidelines:
- Limit saturated fat to less than 7 percent of your total daily calories.
- Limit trans fat to less than 1 percent.
- Healthy adults should limit cholesterol to less than 300 milligrams a day.
- If your doctor says you have high cholesterol, limit it to 200 milligrams.
To reduce saturated and trans fats, limit butter, margarine and shortening. And trim the fat off meats before you cook them.
While all fats are high in calories, some are better than others for a heart-healthy diet. Two types of fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, are better choices. A few places to find them are in olive oil, canola oil, nuts and seeds.
Choose low-fat protein sources.
Lean meat, poultry, fish, low-fat dairy products, egg whites, and egg substitutes are good choices. The best fish choices are those with omega-3 fatty acids. You'll find the highest level of them in salmon, mackerel, and herring. Beans, peas, and lentils are also good sources of protein and contain no cholesterol at all.
Eat more vegetables and fruit.
Vegetables and fruit are good sources of vitamins and minerals. They're low in calories and rich in dietary fiber. They contain chemicals that may help prevent heart disease. And eating more of them may help you eat less high-fat food.
Keep vegetables washed and cut in your refrigerator for quick snacks. Keep fruit in a bowl in your kitchen so you'll remember to eat it. And choose recipes that have fruits and vegetables as their main ingredient. Good choices are vegetable stir-fry and fresh fruit mixed into salads.
There are a few fruits and vegetables to stay away from, however. They include fried or breaded vegetables and vegetables in cream sauce. Also, avoid coconut, frozen fruit with added sugar, and canned fruit in heavy syrup.
Select whole grains.
Whole grains are good sources of fiber and nutrients that help your blood pressure and heart health. Ground flaxseed is another good choice. Flaxseeds are small, brown seeds high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. They can help lower your blood cholesterol. Other good choices are these:
- Whole wheat flour
- Whole grain bread, even better if it is 100 percent whole wheat or whole grain
- High-fiber cereal with 5 or more grams of fiber a serving
- Whole grains such as brown rice, barley and buckwheat
- Whole grain pasta
Reduce sodium in your food.
Eating too much sodium, or salt, can lead to high blood pressure. And high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease. It's a good idea to cut the salt you add to food while cooking and at the table. But much salt comes from canned, processed and frozen foods. Eating fresh foods can help. But if you like the convenience of processed foods, look for "low sodium" on the label.
Condiments can also add a great deal of sodium to your diet. If you buy ketchup and soy sauce, look for reduced-sodium versions.
Control your portion size.
What most people consider a serving, or portion, has grown over the years. And it may be much larger than what a healthy portion is. In fact, restaurant servings are often twice as much as anyone needs. So be aware of how much you're eating.
One serving of meat, fish or chicken, for example, is just two to three ounces. That's about the size of a deck of cards. And a serving of pasta is just half-a-cup, about the size of a hockey puck. It may help to use measuring cups, spoons or a scale until you can judge portions easily.
Plan ahead. Create daily menus.
Create daily menus based on the points listed above. Watch portion sizes and add variety to your menu. This helps make sure you'll get all the nutrients your body needs. Variety also makes meals and snacks more interesting.
Allow yourself a treat once in a while.
A candy bar or handful of potato chips won't ruin your heart-healthy diet. But don't let it turn into an excuse to give up your plan for healthy eating. What's important is that you eat healthy foods most of the time.
Smart snacking ideas grouped by craving
If snacking tends to take you off course, these ideas from the AHA may help. Reaching for a snack isn't bad as long as you're smart about it. The AHA offers some simple ideas, arranged by craving:
- Apples and whole-grain breadsticks
- Carrot and celery sticks
- Green pepper sticks
- Zucchini circles
- Broccoli spears
- Unsalted rice cakes
- Fat-free milk
- Unsweetened, 100 percent juices
- Low-sodium tomato or mixed vegetable juice
- Clear soups, such as homemade or low-sodium canned vegetable or tomato soup
- Cocoa made with nonfat milk
- Unsalted, no-oil sunflower seeds
- Whole grain breads or toast
- Cherry or grape tomatoes
- Low-fat or fat-free cheese
- Plain, low-fat or fat-free yogurt
- Unsalted, no-oil almonds, walnuts, or other nuts
- Unsweetened canned fruit
- Thin slice of angel food cake
- Baked apple
- Frozen bananas
- Frozen grapes
- Fresh or frozen fruit
- Low-fat or fat-free unsweetened fruit yogurt
Potassium and your heart
Potassium is a mineral that is important to the function of all cells. It is also an electrolyte, which conducts electricity in the body. That makes it vital to heart function.
Recent studies show that too much salt plus too little potassium may raise your risk of heart disease. Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, LD, is an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. She says more emphasis should be put on the importance of getting more potassium while lowering sodium intake.
In an article on health.usnews.com, she said ,"Fruits and vegetables are your best natural sources of potassium and they are naturally low in sodium."
Fun, heart-healthy ideas for Valentine's Day
The AHA offers a great list of ideas for Valentine's Day. Here is a summary of those that have to do with a heart-healthy diet. For more ideas, type "Heart-Healthy Valentine's Day Tips" into your search engine.
- Instead of chocolates, find a poem that describes your feelings. Write it on beautiful paper for a handmade card.
- If your children are having a Valentine's Day party at school, don't send candy. Send mini-boxes of raisins or small bags of pretzels. Or, send pencils and stickers.
- Cook at home to control the quality and amount of what you eat. Take a date to a local cooking class to practice your skills.
- Sharing is caring. If you go out for a romantic dinner, order one entrée to share. Many restaurant servings are more than enough for two.
- Spice it up. Cook at home with healthier seasonings. Instead of salt, add spice with fresh hot peppers.
- Take it slow. If you got a box of chocolates, make it last. Put it in the fridge or freezer and enjoy it over several weeks.
- Try something new. Dare yourself to try a new fruit or vegetable. Many groceries have free recipe cards in the produce section. Or, type the name of the food into your favorite search engine.
- Try preparing one of your less-favorite foods in a new way. If you're not crazy about bananas, try grilling one for dessert. Or, pop grapes into the freezer for tiny ice-pop snacks.
February is American Heart Month. So make it your month to commit to a heart-healthy diet. It's the best gift you could give yourself and everyone who loves you.