February is American Heart Month. But it’s such an important topic, it deserves more than 29 days of attention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. And, in the US, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds! Fortunately, there are many ways you can reduce your risk of heart disease through diet, activity, and daily lifestyle changes. The benefits of these quick tips can quickly add up and help you focus on heart health throughout February and year-round!

Eat healthy fats and avoid trans fats: Fat is necessary for a healthy diet, but not all fats are created equal. It’s important to look for healthy ones like polyunsaturated, saturated and unsaturated fats. Trans fat is the kind that can increase levels of LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream. LDL are considered negative cholesterol that can build up in the bloodstream and lower positive HDL cholesterol levels. To incorporate healthy fats in your meals, opt for “loin” cuts of meats; bake, broil, lightly sauté, stir-fry, or roast foods in olive oil or nut oils; and experiment with adding chia seeds, flaxseeds, and nuts to salads and snacks.

Opt for reduced sodium. Having too much sodium makes the body hold on to excess fluid, which increases blood pressure and adds extra pressure on the heart. Based on this, the simple act of choosing reduced sodium versions of packaged foods can go a long way to improving heart health.Select low or no-sodium soups, canned goods, and other prepared foods. Cook with spices rather than salt to reduce sodium in homemade cooking. And, check nutrition labels and opt for foods with lower sodium counts. Keep in mind the American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per today!

 Focus on omega-3 fatty acids. These powerful nutrients are found in many common foods, and they deliver health benefits across the board, from fighting depression and anxiety, to improving eye health, to reducing symptoms of ADHD in children. For heart health, they perhaps produce the biggest bang by:

  • Reducing triglycerides and blood pressure
  • Increasing “good” HDL cholesterol
  • Preventing blood clots
  • Reducing plaque and
  • Decreasing inflammation

 To add more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet, seek out fish like salmon, albacore tuna (with water), mackerel, trout, and sardines, or plant-based products like walnuts, almonds, soybeans, and chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flaxseeds.

Get your fruits and veggies. This is always a healthy-eating go-to tip, as fruits and vegetables are good for you across the board. In terms of heart health, both fruits and vegetables are high in potassium and other nutrients that can lower blood pressure and prevent cardiovascular disease. Also, eating more fruits and vegetables can “fill you up,” making you less inclined to eat foods that are not as beneficial, such as meat, cheeses, and sugary snacks.

Plan, plan, plan. Too often, we find ourselves tired from a long day or pressed for time with busy schedules, and we opt for quick, unhealthy meals or snacks on the run. To offset this, a little planning can go a long way for heart health. Aim tospend some time on the weekends preparing vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains to either grab as snacks or to reheat throughout the week. Stock up on pantry staples so that you can make healthy meals quickly. Also, prepare a grocery list for the week. Having a plan helps you stay on track and balance your meals. 

Focusing on your heart health can be a lifesaver in February and year-round. And it’s never too late to implement these tips. Remember, every act counts! For more information, contact the fitness and nutrition professionals at the YMCA. And for more support and guidance, check out the Y’s Blood Pressure Self-Monitoring Program. Celebrate heart health and get healthy at the Y!