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Heart-healthy Eating for Heart Month

Posted February 3

February is American Heart Month. It’s important to focus on how to keep our heart and cardiovascular system healthy because heart disease remains the leading cause of death for all adults in the United States. Yet 80 percent of heart disease and stroke events can be prevented by lifestyle changes and education.

There are some individuals that are at higher risk for heart disease including those that have high blood pressure or cholesterol, diabetes or pre-diabetes, are overweight, that smoke, are physically inactive or have an unhealthy diet. Risk for heart disease also increases with age. Given all of this, what are some first steps to take to reduce risk for heart disease?

Healthier eating is one of the top five recommended heart-healthy actions from the Center for Disease Control that include:

  • Scheduling an appointment with your doctor to talk about specific health concerns
  • Adding exercise to your daily routine
  • Increasing healthy eating
  • Taking steps to quit smoking
  • Taking medications as prescribed
While focusing on all of these actions at one time may be challenging, taking small doable steps and starting with one or two of the areas may help success in the long run. Below, the focus is on the steps to increase healthier eating.

What to Eat for Heart-Health

To increase healthier eating consider that research suggests heart-healthy eating is a pattern over time rather than any one food to include or exclude. The good news is that there are many ways to follow a healthy eating pattern while still allowing flexibility for personal food preferences. In general, a healthy eating pattern includes a variety of nutrient rich foods, especially from plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans and peas), and whole grains. Include lean protein sources, especially fish, at least twice per week as well as lean meats or poultry and healthy fats from nuts/seeds and oils like olive oil or canola oil in moderate amounts. Reduce sources of added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium and avoid trans fats all together.

Foods that may pack extra benefit for heart-health include those that are high in certain types of dietary fiber called “viscous” or “insoluble” fiber. This type of fiber can be found in a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, and in somewhat higher amounts in grains like oats and barley, beans, vegetables such as brussel sprouts or sweet potatoes, fruits such as apples and blueberries, or seeds like flaxseed. Including these foods that are higher in viscous fiber may help you get more heart-healthy benefit for the same efforts.

For individuals that have pre-diabetes or diabetes, it’s beneficial to moderate the portions of carbohydrate-containing foods including grains and grain products, fruits, starchy-vegetables, and milk/dairy products. It’s also important to limit sweets and swap sugary foods and beverages for low-sugar versions. Work closely with your doctor and healthcare team such as a dietitian or Certified Diabetes Educator for your specific nutrition needs to support good blood sugar control.

When to Eat

There are some studies that suggest the timing of when foods are consumed, or meal pattern, may also play a role in health. One study, for example, found that overweight individuals that consumed a reduced-calorie diet had improved health benefits when more of their daily calories were consumed during the earlier part of the day. While more research needs to be done, it could be beneficial to more evenly distribute foods consumed throughout the day rather than having a large evening meal and to focus on getting a variety of nutrient-rich foods at breakfast and lunch meals.

As a general pattern, individuals may eat better when they establish a regular, consistent daily meal pattern that works for their schedule. Taking a lunch break at work and sitting down with family at the dinner table can also contribute to heart-health by providing an important opportunity to relax and connect with others.

How to Eat Healthier

Bringing more awareness to how we’re eating can also help us eat healthier. Brian Wansink, Ph.D., a researcher at Cornell University and author of the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than we Think, suggests that individuals often overeat for a variety of reasons other than true physical hunger. One way to help promote more awareness in eating is to set up an eating environment that supports healthier eating. This might include using smaller plates and serving utensils, putting less-healthy foods out of sight or making them harder to access. Slowing down and removing distractions while eating can also help. Ultimately, we may enjoy the meals we do eat more and this could help make healthy eating habits last.

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