Culinary indulgences can be abundant in the winter months, especially in February when celebrating Valentine’s Day often means going out for rich meals. But February also happens to be American Heart Month, a time to raise awareness about heart disease and how it can be prevented. And, “a healthy diet and lifestyle are your best weapons to fight cardiovascular disease,” according to the American Heart Association,”
While Valentine’s Day and your restaurant reservations or decadent at-home dinner creations may be long gone, it’s not too late to start eating for heart health.
In a nod to the Feast of Saint Valentine, we’ve rounded up 14 tips for a heart-healthy diet:
1. Eat a fruits and vegetables in all colors and shapes. Eating a variety of fruits and veggies is good for your heart. They can be fresh, frozen or canned. Just skip the high-calorie sauces as well as the added salt and sugars. Red, yellow, orange, green, blue and all the shades in between—fruits and veggies contain tons of vitamins, nutrients and fiber that are good for your ticker.
2. Opt for whole—whole grains, that is. Did you know that whole grains help clean your arteries of fats and keep you feeling full? And that’s only a small sampling of their benefits. Take advantage of them by selecting 100 percent whole-wheat or whole-grain bread, cereal with 5 grams or more fiber in a serving, brown rice, barley, buckwheat, oatmeal and whole-grain pasta, to name a few.
3. Think beyond animal proteins. There are many other lean, satisfying and heart-healthy protein sources including almonds, walnuts, tofu and other soy products, and legumes (e.g., beans, peas and lentils.)
4. Keep an eye on portion size—especially when dining out. Consuming too many calories can lead to weight gain, which can impact your risk for heart disease. Make sure you take in only what your body needs. For guidance on portion sizes, read “Don’t Fall Prey to Portion Distortion” at the American Heart Association website.
5. Make friends with omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids benefit healthy hearts as well as those at risk of and those who have cardiovascular disease. Good sources include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna, as well as ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, chia seeds, canola and soy oil, and soybeans and tofu.
6. Don’t get too sweet. Reduce your sugar intake by cutting back on foods and beverages with added sugar.
7. Love chocolate? Go dark. Studies show that chocolate may help protect your cardiovascular system thanks to flavonoids—a class of plant nutrient found in cocoa beans. That doesn’t mean you can go crazy. Cleveland clinic recommends dark chocolate that’s at leas 70 percent cocoa and moderate (e.g., 1 ounce) portions a few times a week.
8. Expand your recipe collection. Sometimes we can slip into unhealthy dining ruts or reach for convenience or takeout when we grow bored with our cooking repertoire. There are a lot of delicious, heart-healthy recipes from trusted sources online at the American Heart Association; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; and the Mayo Clinic. There are many cookbooks full of heart-healthy recipes on the market, too.
9. Eat meat? Go lean. Opt for skinless poultry and fish. If you eat red meat, choose the leanest cuts possible. Avoid saturated and trans fat when cooking.
10. Skip the salt. Spice it up! The average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day—that’s more than double the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 1,500 milligrams, maximum. Too much sodium in your diet increases your risk of high blood pressure and other major health problems.
Cooking with less salt and not adding salt to food doesn’t have to mean eating bland meals. Herbs and spices can add a lot of flavor. Not sure where to start? Search the Internet for ideas, or visit your local spice shop.
11. Get the skinny on dairy. The American Heart Association recommends fat-free (skim) and low-fat (1 percent) dairy products.
12. Plan. Convenience foods tend to be high in sodium—more than 75 percent of the sodium Americans consume is estimated to come from processed foods and not from salting food? Restaurant meals often trend toward the saltier side, too, in addition to coming in far-too-big portion sizes.
Eliminate the temptation to go for what’s quick and easy. Start creating meal plans for your week. Shop with them in mind and even prep what you can in advance. Preparedness can be a great way to encourage healthier eating.
13. Raise a glass in moderation. The American Heart Association recommends that if you drink alcohol, you do so moderately—no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two per day for men.
14. Indulge. Just do it a little less. There will certainly be occasions in which you break from the guidelines of heart-healthy—or just plain healthy—eating. Just make these occasions rare and the portion sizes reasonable. If you overdo it, don’t beat yourself up. Just get back on track with diet and exercise.
Visit your healthcare provider for preventive care visits and screenings, and always talk with this individual about your risk for cardiovascular disease along with any symptoms, questions or concerns you may have.
American Heart Association. “The American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations.” Last updated Jan. 20, 2016. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/The-American-Heart-Associations-Diet-and-Lifestyle-Recommendations_UCM_305855_Article.jsp
American Heart Association. “The Greatness of Whole Grains.” Last updated April 14, 2014. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/The-Greatness-of-Whole-Grains_UCM_455739_Article.jsp
American Heart Association. “Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” Last updated June 15, 2016. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/HealthyDietGoals/Fish-and-Omega-3-Fatty-Acids_UCM_303248_Article.jsp
Cleveland Clinic Heart & Vascular Team. “15 Heart-Healthy Foods to Work Into Your Diet.” Jan. 27, 2015. http://health.clevelandclinic.org/2015/01/15-heart-healthy-foods-to-work-into-your-diet/
Cleveland Clinic. “Heart Health Benefits of Chocolate.” Last reviewed Jan. 2012. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/heart/prevention/nutrition/food-choices/benefits-of-chocolate
Mayo Clinic. “Heart-healthy Diet: 8 Steps to Prevent Heart Disease.” March 18, 2015. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-healthy-diet/art-20047702
Medline Plus. “Omega-3 Fats: Good for Your Heart.” Last updated Feb. 2, 2016. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000767.htm
 HealthFinder.gov. “February 2016 Toolkit: American Heart Month.” http://healthfinder.gov/nho/pdfs/februarynhotoolkit.pdf
 American Heart Association. “The American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations.” Updated Jan. 20, 2016. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/The-American-Heart-Associations-Diet-and-Lifestyle-Recommendations_UCM_305855_Article.jsp
 American Heart Association. “Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” Last updated June 15, 2016. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/HealthyDietGoals/Fish-and-Omega-3-Fatty-Acids_UCM_303248_Article.jsp
 American Heart Association. “reducing Sodium in a Salty World.” Last updated Aug. 17, 2015. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Reducing-Sodium-in-a-Salty-World_UCM_457519_Article.jsp
 American Heart Association. “Busted 7 Salty Myths.” http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@fc/documents/downloadable/ucm_469427.pdf