February is American Heart Month. Cardiovascular disease—including stroke and heart disease—claims more lives in the U.S. than any other illness. Making healthy diet choices is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce your risk of heart disease. The following tips will help you eat your way to a happier, healthier heart:
- Shake your salt habit. Though your body needs sodium to work properly, too much sodium can cause your body to retain excess fluid. This puts an extra burden on your heart and blood vessels. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day and an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults. However, the average American eats about 3,400 mg of sodium! Even cutting back to 2,400 mg a day can significantly improve blood pressure and heart health. Keep an eye out for the “salty six” foods, including bread, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, poultry, soup and sandwiches.
- Cut back on packaged, processed foods. More than 75 percent of the sodium Americans eat comes from processed, prepackaged or restaurant foods—not from the salt shaker. Familiarize yourself with food labels, as you may be surprised by hidden sodium, sugars and fats in foods you considered healthy.
- Reduce added sugar. Too much added sugar significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and contributes to obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Some major sources of added sugars include soft drinks, candy, cakes, fruit drinks and dairy products. Two simple tips: Consider cutting back on the amount of sugar added to things you drink regularly such as coffee or tea and buy fresh fruit instead of fruit canned in syrup.
- Remember not all fats are created equal. While it’s important to avoid eating saturated and trans fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can actually be good for you in moderation because they do not raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol in your body and may actually help raise your “good” HDL cholesterol. Eating fish such as salmon, trout and tuna are an excellent source of healthy fat, along with vegetable oils, avocados, olives and various types of nuts.
- Add more color to your plate. Aim for five or more servings of colorful fruits (such as berries, oranges, and apples) and veggies (bell peppers, spinach, broccoli and carrots) each day.
- Look for healthy key words. When ordering food at a restaurant, look for menu items prepared using a low-fat method, such as “steamed,” “broiled,” “grilled,” “roasted,” “poached” or “in its own juice.” Key words that indicate foods contain saturated fat or cholesterol include “creamed,” “au gratin,” “marinated,” “fried” or “sautéed.”
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Drinking an average of more than one drink a day for women or more than two drinks a day for men can raise the levels of some fats in the blood and can lead to other serious problems such as heart failure and stroke.
- Cook meals at home. When you prepare and cook your meals at home, you have better control over the nutritional content and the overall healthfulness of the foods you eat. Plus, you can save money, too!