In honor of American Heart Month, it’s important to raise awareness of the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States: heart disease. February is a great reminder to take care of our heart and commit to a lifestyle that improves our overall health. There are many strategies we can take to keep our hearts healthy and prevent cardiovascular disease. Healthy lifestyle changes include diet, exercise, quitting smoking, limit alcohol intake and managing health conditions. While all of these are very important factors to fight and prevent heart disease, one of the greatest weapons we have is a healthy diet.

Recently, more research has been done that suggests limiting the meat in your diet may be good for your heart health. According to new studies, eating just two servings of red meat or poultry a week could raise your risk of cardiovascular disease. Other foods high in sugar, fat, salt and refined carbs (think white bread, breakfast cereals, and pasta) also increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Refined carbs and sugar offer zero nutritional value and may also cause or worsen mood changes, fatigue, and increase the risk of obesity.


There are a variety of heart-healthy diet plans to choose from. According to Healthline the three best diets are the Ornish diet, Mediterranean Diet, and the DASH Diet. The Vegan Diet came in at number four, and while it’s not in the top three, it’s important to note that a non-meat diet also made the list so close to the top. If you prefer not to follow a diet plan and want to be more conscious of the foods you eat and other ways to prevent heart disease, see our five heart-healthy nutrition tips below.

1. Eat less bad carbs and more whole grains


As previously noted, many carbs are full of sugars and offer no nutritional value, so it’s important to know the difference between good carbs and bad carbs. Simple carbs found in many processed foods are linked to increased fatty acids, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. They stress the heart with raised blood sugar levels and inflammation which can lead to an increased risk of heart disease. Complex carbohydrates are what we know as “good carbs” that are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals our bodies need to function. Foods that contain good carbs are whole grains, vegetables, and legumes. Fiber found in complex carbs offers a slight decrease in total and LDL cholesterol. Whole grains are low on the glycemic index, helping you to feel full longer while getting more nutrients than simple carbs. 


2. Restrict salt consumption


Because salty foods are typically high in fat, calories and associated with fluid retention, it’s recommended that we eat a low-sodium diet. Sodium intake worsens high blood pressure which increases the risk for developing heart failure and other types of heart disease. A high-sodium diet may lead to obesity, osteoporosis, and stomach cancers. Salt is known as an “addictive flavor,” so our bodies begin to crave it, especially after a prolonged period of a salt-heavy diet. To reduce salt intake try eating less processed, convenience foods and restaurant meals. Limit your salt intake to about 1 teaspoon a day, that is the recommended amount by the American Heart Association.


3. Beware the two types of bad fats


Saturated and trans fats have been identified as harmful to our health. Most of these fats are solid at room temperature, such as butter, margarine, shortening, beef or pork. Saturated fats are found in high-fat meats and dairy products. Know that they are not only found in red meats but also in dark meat, for instance, darkened chicken meat or skin. Too much saturated fat causes LDL and blood cholesterol levels to rise. Trans fat is found in many foods including fried foods, pizza, snack foods, baked goods, some meats, dairy products and so on. It is considered to be the worst type of fat you can eat. Trans fats are known to increase the risk of coronary artery disease by raising levels of bad cholesterol and lowering levels of good cholesterol.


4. Consume more fruits and vegetables


There’s a reason moms always say “eat your vegetables!” Fruits and vegetables carry an array of heart-healthy nutrients our bodies need. They are both high in fiber, which assist with lowering cholesterol, blood pressure and improve blood vessel function. Many fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins C and A, known for antioxidants that help prevent atherosclerosis (a disease of the arteries), decrease oxidative damage and lower the risk of certain chronic diseases. Fruits and veggies are also low in calories, fat, and sodium and when eaten regularly associate with maintaining a healthy weight.


5. Less processed and more whole foods


Unfortunately, some of the best tasting foods are processed; in fact, more than 60 percent of the American diet contains highly processed foods. Foods such as pizza, soda, burgers, and hot dogs are all processed, meaning foods that have been altered in some way during preparation. The processed foods that mostly need to be avoided are chemically processed — foods that have chemicals added to them used as a preservative or to enhance the appearance and taste. Our bodies have a hard time recognizing these ingredients and are not designed to break down chemically processed foods like they are with whole foods. Processed foods are usually high in sugar, artificial ingredients, simple carbohydrates, and trans fats. Whole foods are plant foods that are unprocessed or unrefined, or as close to their natural form as possible. Because whole foods are minimally processed they are abundant with vitamins, fiber, minerals, and other essential nutrients. Whole foods consist of vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. The benefits of a minimally processed, whole food diet include lower rates of heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.