February is American Hearth Month, which means it’s a good time for all of us to give a bit more consideration to our cardiovascular health. Most of us, after all, are either related to someone or know someone who has suffered a stroke or is battling heart disease. Though it has been eclipsed by COVID-19, cardiovascular disease remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States. While there are certain risk factors that you can’t change – such as age and family history – there are some risk factors that you can change. These include not smoking, getting more exercise, losing weight where needed, controlling diabetes and hypertension, managing stress, and making healthy nutritional changes. The last one – healthy nutritional changes – just might be the easiest and quickest step you can take to reduce your risk for heart problems.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says there are some key changes you can make to do so. “First, you want to focus on choosing healthy fats,” Tillman said. “The goal is to improve your blood lipid and cholesterol profiles. For this, you should try looking for more monounsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil, avocado oil, nuts and seeds, and avocados. These can help with your lipid and cholesterol profiles because they help lower bad cholesterol and can even raise good cholesterol. Next, look for omega-3 fats, which can be found in fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna and sardines. If you’re not big on fish, you can find omega-3 fats in chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts, as well,” she explained.
“The next step to take is to limit your sodium intake,” Tillman continued. “The recommendation for daily salt intake is about 2300 milligrams, which is about a teaspoon a day. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and most people get more than that every single day. A lot of added salt comes from eating packaged foods, processed foods and fast foods, all of which tend to contain much higher sodium content than fresh foods, fruits and vegetables,” she explained. “Sodium mostly affects blood pressure, so if your blood pressure is high, pay more attention to your sodium intake. Try to eat less fast foods and pre-packaged foods, and definitely keep an eye on the labels on the back of the packages to know how much you’re getting,” she added.
Tillman says sugar also should be limited if you’re looking to reduce your risk for heart disease. “Sugar has been linked to high triglycerides, which affects heart health, too,” she said. “The American Heart Association recommends getting fewer than six teaspoons of added sugar per day for women and fewer than nine teaspoons per day for men. As with sodium, many people get much more than that each day, so you definitely want to watch your added sugar consumption each day by checking those food labels on the foods and drinks you buy,” she explained.
Finally, Tillman says, simply eat more fruits and vegetables. “Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants such as lycopene, lutein, vitamin A, vitamin C, and minerals such as potassium and magnesium, which help with blood pressure control and reduce your risk for atherosclerosis,” Tillman said. “They’re also rich in fiber, which can help with lipid and cholesterol profiles, and are better foods for your heart overall,” she added.