Easy ways to make your diet more heart-healthy

With Valentine's Day right at its center, it's not surprising that February is also American Hearth Month. That’s why February is a time of increased efforts that highlight risk factors for heart disease. It is also a time to share ways to live a more heart-healthy lifestyle.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), lifestyle behaviors make a major difference in heart health. These include getting regular physical activity and aiming for a healthy weight. It's also important to manage stress, focus on sleep quality, and quit smoking. Another big variable is choosing the right foods—and avoiding problematic ones. Continue reading for some tips on how to move toward a diet that supports your heart. Plus, it also offers the rest of your body, including your brain, a boost.

Focus on fiber

Getting enough fiber in your diet is closely linked to heart health. For example, research shows that multiple types of fiber have been shown to lower blood cholesterol and reduce heart disease risk. The American Heart Association (AHA) offers these tips for increasing fiber in your diet:

  • Choose whole-grain products such as whole wheat, oats, barley, farro, brown rice, and quinoa.
  • Opt for "plant-forward eating." This means emphasizing fruits and vegetables in your diet. Also, include beans, nuts, legumes, and whole grains.
  • Sneak fiber-rich ingredients into all meals. For example, mix chopped broccoli into spaghetti sauce, or add fresh spinach to soups.
  • Snack with fiber in mind. You could have unsalted nuts, pumpkin seeds, or unsalted popcorn. You can also make a smoothie with frozen fruit and low-fat milk.

Despite ample evidence that fiber is a huge boon for heart health, many people fall short of getting enough on a daily basis, The AHA suggests. In fact, one analysis found that up to 95% of adults don't consume the recommended amount of fiber for good health.

Making the effort to incorporate more fiber into your diet can not only improve heart health. It has also been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, inflammatory bowel syndrome, obesity, and colorectal cancer.

Follow DASH rules

You don't need a specific diet for heart-healthy foods. But following a plan might help. DASH, short for dietary approaches to stop hypertension, was developed specifically to lower blood pressure and improve heart health.

According to the NIH, this eating plan doesn't require special foods. Instead, it provides daily and weekly nutritional goals. In addition to increasing fiber in the ways listed above, DASH recommends:

  • Include fat-free or low-fat dairy products as well as fish and poultry.
  • Limit foods high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats. Avoid tropical cooking oils like coconut and palm oil.
  • Limit sugary beverages and foods. These have been shown to negatively affect heart function.

Another benefit to following an eating plan like DASH is that it's easy to find recipes online that stick to these guidelines.

Limit sodium

Adults and children over age 14 should eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily. Those with high blood pressure may need to limit that amount even more. You can choose to track your sodium amount carefully. Alternatively, you can adopt a low-sodium habit without focusing on the numbers.

The NIH suggests these tactics:

  • Choose products marked as reduced sodium, low sodium, or no salt added.
  • Choose fresh or frozen foods instead of pre-seasoned, marinated, or brined selections.
  • Limit or avoid processed meats such as bacon, sausage, and deli meat since they tend to be high in sodium.
  • Flavor foods with herbs and spices instead of salt.
  • Limit the use of premade sauces, mixes, and instant products. They usually have higher sodium levels to extend shelf life.
  • Eat at home more often and cook from scratch, so you can control the amount of sodium in your meals.

Research suggests that controlling your sodium can improve blood pressure. It may also prevent vascular damage and challenges to the immune system.

In general, the NIH notes that understanding your risk factors can play a major role in preventing heart disease. This, combined with putting other lifestyle habits into place, can also improve your health overall.

For more health and wellness education, follow @MGBHealthPlan on InstagramLinkedIn, and Facebook.

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