A healthy heart starts with healthy foods. February is Heart Health Month, and since you're likely still focused on the resolutions you made for the new year, it's a great time to examine your diet.
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S., but you can protect this vital organ by eating certain foods — it's just one of the benefits of a healthy diet. Here's what you need to know about the connection between what you eat and the health of your heart.
How diet affects your heart health
The foods you eat can nourish and strengthen your body, or they can make your body work a lot harder than it needs to. When it comes to heart health, foods that impede blood flow cause your heart to work harder, eventually weakening it. Too much saturated fat, heavily processed foods and lack of water can cause your blood vessels to become less flexible. This hardening of the blood vessels is called arteriosclerosis, and it's a big risk factor for heart disease.
By now, you've probably heard that lowering cholesterol is good for your heart. When your body has a lot of LDL cholesterol (also referred to by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as "bad" cholesterol), it can cause plaque to build up in your blood vessels. This means there's less space for blood to travel through them, and your heart has to work harder to pump enough blood to the rest of your body. Levels of bad cholesterol tend to be higher when you eat a lot of saturated fat.
Drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated is also incredibly important. A study from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville suggests that even mild dehydration can contribute to atherosclerosis. Consuming six to eight cups of fluid a day remains a pretty good guideline, although you may need more if you sweat a lot or tend to lose fluids for other reasons.
It's a good idea to limit alcohol throughout the day as well, as it acts as a diuretic and can worsen dehydration. If you're not a fan of plain water, you can opt for unsweetened sparkling water or decaf tea and eat more juicy fruits like watermelon or oranges.
Foods to choose for a heart-healthy diet
A plant-based diet is a great option to maintain heart health. This sort of diet doesn't mean avoiding meat entirely — instead, you put plants at the forefront of your meal planning.
When you follow a plant-based diet, you fill half your plate with foods from plants. Some combination of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts or seeds is ideal. Then, fill the rest of your plate with whole grains and lean meat or seafood. It's best to opt for chicken, turkey, lean beef, salmon, mackerel or albacore tuna.
Another heart-healthy eating plan is the DASH diet, which is a plan developed by the National Institutes of Health that has been shown to reduce blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. Similar to most dietary recommendations, the DASH diet focuses on fruits, vegetables and lean meats, but it also aims to reduce sodium intake. Packaged, processed and canned foods — as well as many condiments — tend to have high sodium levels, so look for low-sodium varieties and try to avoid canned or frozen vegetables with added salt or seasoning packets.
Some heart-healthy foods recommended by the American Heart Association include:
- Green leafy vegetables. Romaine lettuce, spinach, collards, chard, kale and other salad greens contain vitamins A, C and K, plus B vitamins. They also have fiber but add no fat and little calories to your diet.
- Nuts. Peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, cashews and almonds (lightly salted or unsalted) are high in unsaturated fats, which help lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol.
- Plain, low-fat yogurt. It contains potassium — an important part of the DASH diet — as well as protein, and it's a great base for a snack of fruit and nuts.
- Legumes. Peas, beans and lentils are part of a plant-based diet. They add protein, potassium and amino acids without the saturated fat of meat. They're also high in fiber, which helps improve your cholesterol.
- Liquid vegetable oils, herbs and spices. Many vegetable oils contain unsaturated fats, which improve "good" HDL cholesterol. Using plenty of herbs and spices lets you replace salt in your cooking with rich flavors. Cook vegetables or meats in oil instead of butter and season with herbs rather than salt for healthier meals.
Protecting your heart can help you live a longer, more active life. Even small changes can make a big difference, so start with simple substitutions (like having fruit and nuts for a snack rather than chips). This Heart Health Month, see what changes you can make to your diet to ensure that you keep your heart stronger for longer.