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Ah, February! It’s that sweet time of year when our thoughts turn to roses, romance and chocolate.
American Heart Month is also a wonderful time to appreciate the daily beat of your own heart and to renew your personal commitment to taking care of it. If you have neglected that important organ a little more than you should have this past year, these tips will get you back on track.
Limit unhealthy fats
Limiting how much saturated and trans fats you eat are the most important steps you can take to reduce your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of coronary artery disease. High blood cholesterol levels can lead to a buildup of plaques in your arteries and that puts you at risk for a heart attack and stroke. Make saturated fat less than 7 percent of your total daily calories. Reduce the amount of solid fats (butter, margarine and shortening) that you add to your food when cooking or serving. Trim excess fat off your meats and choose lean meats.
Choose low-fat protein sources
The best choices for proteins are lean meat, poultry and fish, low-fat dairy products and egg whites or egg substitutes. But be careful to choose lower fat dairy options such as skim milk rather than whole milk and low-fat sour cream rather than full-fat versions.
Certain types of fish are not only low fat but also heart healthy because they’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower blood fats called triglycerides. The highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring. Other sources are flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil.
Eat more vegetables and fruits
Vegetables and fruits are good sources of vitamins and minerals; they are low in calories and rich in dietary fiber. Vegetables and fruits also contain substances found in plants that may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Eating more fruits and vegetables may help you eat less high-fat foods, such as meat, cheese and snack foods.
Working more fruits and vegetables into your diet can be easy. Keep vegetables washed and cut in your refrigerator, and make sure you can see them so you will remember to snack on those first. Choose recipes that have vegetables or fruits as the main ingredient, such as vegetable stir-fry or salads that include fresh fruit.
Select whole grains
Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that help regulate blood pressure and promote heart health. You can increase the amount of whole grains in a heart-healthy diet by making simple substitutions for refined grain products.
Another easy way to add whole grains to your diet is ground flaxseed. Flaxseeds are high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower your blood cholesterol. You can grind the seeds in a coffee grinder or food processor or you can purchase them already ground. Just stir a teaspoon of them into yogurt, applesauce or hot cereal for a nutty flavor and extra nutrition.
Reduce salt in your food
Eating high amounts of salt can contribute to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Reducing the amount of salt in your food is an important part of a heart-healthy diet. The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day (about a teaspoon).
Much of the salt you eat comes from canned or processed foods, such as soups and frozen dinners. Try eating more fresh foods and making your own soups and stews. If you like the convenience of canned soups and prepared meals, look for ones with reduced sodium.
Control your portion size
Overloading your plate, taking seconds and eating until you feel stuffed can lead to eating more calories, fat and cholesterol than you should. Portions served in restaurants are often more than anyone needs. Keep track of the number of servings you eat and use proper serving sizes to help control your portions.
Plan ahead Create daily menus
You know what foods to feature in your heart-healthy diet and which ones to limit. Now it’s time to put your plans into action. Create daily menus using the six strategies listed above. When selecting foods for meals and snacks, emphasize vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Choose lean protein sources and limit high-fat and salty foods. Watch your portion sizes and add variety to your menu choices.
Treat yourself occasionally
Allow yourself an indulgence every now and then. A candy bar or handful of potato chips won’t derail your heart-healthy diet. Often it will help keep you on track because you do not feel there are “certain foods” that are off-limits. Don’t let an occasional treat turn into an excuse for giving up on your healthy eating plan. Balance and moderation are the keys. The important thing is to eat healthy foods most of the time.