Did you know that heart disease is THE leading cause of death in the United States? February is American Heart Month, dedicated to raising awareness about cardiovascular diseases (diseases of the heart). An estimated 92.1 million people in the United States have cardiovascular disease or the after effects of stroke!

What is heart disease and how can you prevent or manage it?
Heart disease is a condition in which the arteries in your body become narrow from a buildup of fat plaque overtime. The plaque thickens the artery walls, which results in reduced blood flow to the heart. This causes the heart to work harder to pump the blood throughout the body. Everyday activities such as walking can become strenuous and symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, and fatigue become common.
Many studies have linked poor nutrition, sedentary lifestyle, smoking and stress to increased risk for heart disease.

Here are 6 nutrition tips to reduce your risk for heart disease today. I’ve grouped them into 2 sections: foods to limit and foods to choose more often.

Limit saturated and trans fats

  • Saturated and trans fats in foods increase your LDL (lousy) cholesterol; trans fats decrease your HDL (healthy) cholesterol as well so you should really avoid all trans fats. Saturated and trans fats are fats that are solid at room temperature. Saturated fat is found in animal fat (such as the skin on poultry or marbled meat), butter, hard margarine, coconut and palm oils. Trans fats is found in baked goods (such as pastries, cookies, doughnuts), frozen biscuits, crackers, microwave popcorn, frozen entrees such as frozen pizza, and fried fast foods. NOTE that milk has very small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats which are not linked to heart disease and are different than the industrial made trans fats.

Limit sodium

  • Sodium is also called salt. High intakes of sodium on a regular basis can increase blood pressure which is associated with heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends to limit your sodium intake to 2300 mg per day or 1 tsp of salt per day. Sodium is found in most foods including breads, cereals, canned vegetables, cheese, deli meat and is especially high in processed and take out foods. Limit your sodium intake by cooking at home more often, rinsing your canned vegetables, using spices and herbs to flavor your dishes, and reading food labels.

Limit simple sugars

  • Simple sugars found in cakes, muffins, candy and soda drinks can increase your triglyceride levels (a type of fat in the body) and contribute to rapid weight gain without providing you with nutrients. These foods are a treat once in a while but should not be part of our regular eating pattern. Aim to reduce these foods in your diet one step at a time and focus on those foods that are nutritious and part of a healthy diet.

Choose healthy fats

  • Healthy fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which means that these fats are liquid at room temperature. Studies show that replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. A special type of fat called omega 3 fatty acids is important because it has anti-inflammatory properties and helps with heart health. Omega 3 is found in fatty fish (such as salmon, trout, mackerel, and sardines), flaxseeds and chia seeds, walnuts, and omega 3 fortified eggs. Healthy fat sources include olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds.

Choose fruits and vegetables more often

  • Fruits and vegetables are power foods because they are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables, such as lycopene, lutein, vitamin A, and C, prevent or delay cell damage that can lead to cancer and heart disease as we age. Choose fruits and vegetables with dark bright colors: red, orange, yellow and dark green vegetables are especially high in antioxidants. Examples include tomatoes, carrots, oranges, sweet potato, squash, spinach and broccoli.

Choose whole grains

  • Whole grains contain all three parts of the grain: bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole grains are high in fiber, which helps lower blood cholesterol levels. You can think of fiber as a sponge that soaks up all the bad cholesterol in the body. Examples of whole grains are brown rice, whole wheat breads, oats, quinoa, barley, bulgur, and popcorn. Whole grains also contain the antioxidant vitamin E to help protect from chronic diseases.

With these nutrition tips in mind I would recommend that you start small and work your way up. Make one small change to your current eating pattern, and once achieved add another small change. Remember small changes= big differences!

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