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The best foods for heart health

Christine Cristiano hangs her hat in Ontario, Canada. She shares her world with husband, two sons and a beagle named Tessie.

Heart-healthy meal planning

Nutrition is as key as regular exercise in preventing heart disease. A balanced, healthy diet can lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, help with maintaining a healthy weight, and reduce the risk of many chronic illnesses. Furthermore, recent research has identified certain foods, vitamins and fats that are particularly beneficial for optimum heart health. As you are planning your family's meals, keep these foods and nutrients at the top of your list - not only are they heart helpers, they are also important in promoting overall health and wellbeing.

Pasta Primavera

Heart disease is a killer

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease is a leading cause of death for men and women in the US and takes over 600,000 lives each year. More concerning is that heart disease can be a silent killer. Almost two-thirds of the women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms and nearly one-fifth of the people with high blood pressure, a leading risk factor in heart disease, don't know they have it. This means that even if you have no symptoms, you may still be at risk for developing this potentially deadly, yet preventable, disease.

You are what you eat

To immediately lower your risk and your family's risk of heart disease, make changes in your diet starting today. Whole, unprocessed, nutrient-packed foods that are low in trans fats and preservatives can help protect blood vessels, reduce inflammation (which has been associated with heart disease), and eliminate free radicals that can damage the heart. Since there is no single miracle food that will protect your heart, consuming a smorgasbord of foods high in omega-3 fats, antioxidants and B-complex vitamins is the best dietary way to reduce your risk of heart disease.

Brightly colored foods boost heart health

Color your diet with nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. Rich-colored produce such as carrots, broccoli, spinach, papaya, sweet potato, red bell peppers, asparagus and tomatoes are high in carotenoids, lutein, antioxidants and other phytonutrients that protect the heart and slow the aging process. Additional foods to reach for are oranges, acorn squash, cantaloupe and blueberries, all of which are high in carotenoids.

Legumes and whole grains are tasty heart helpers

Foods loaded with B-complex vitamins, particularly folate, niacin, and vitamins B6 and B12, can reduce the risk of blood clots and hardening of the arteries. Good sources of B-vitamins include beans, legumes, brown rice, tofu and soy milk.

Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have been identified by the American Health Association as a heart healthy fat found in certain fish species. The three major types of omega-3 fatty acids – alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – have been shown to help reduce inflammation associated with heart disease, cancer and arthritis. The AHA recommends that individuals consume omega-3 fatty acids at least twice weekly from fish sources including lake trout, sardines, albacore tuna, salmon, halibut and herring.

Cut cholesterol with garlic

Garlic has long been touted as a heart-healthy natural supplement and backed by numerous studies that have demonstrated small reductions in LDL (bad) cholesterol and a reduction in the formation of blood clots. However, be sure to consult with your doctor before changing your intake of garlic in raw or supplement form because large doses can compromise the blood's ability to clot, particularly when taken in combination with blood thinning medications.

Eat more Mediterranean for heart health

The Mediterranean diet is not so much a diet plan but rather a simple, heart-healthy way of eating that focuses on fresh, unprocessed foods. Low in saturated fat and loaded with fruits, vegetables, olive oil, cheese, yogurt, chicken and fish, the Mediterranean diet also features moderate consumption of flavonoid-rich red wine. In comparison, the standard American diet is higher in processed foods, saturated fats, red meat and beer. Adopting a Mediterranean way of eating is easily accomplished by reducing the consumption of all packaged or processed foods and increasing your intake of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and whole grains as well as preparing food with olive oil. Studies have shown this sensible way of eating is not only beneficial for the heart, it can also reduce the risk of cancer.

Heart-Healthy Meal Planning Tips

The key to heart-healthy eating, eliminating processed foods from your family's diet, and staying out of the fast food drive thru line is to plan ahead.

Give these heart-healthy meal planning tips a try:

  • Make a weekly meal plan. Sit down every Sunday and plan your meals for the week, writing out a shopping list of the food items you need for your meals, which should be comprised of fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats and occasional indulgences. Limit processed foods or foods high in saturated or trans fat.
  • Stick to your meal plan. Unless you have last-minute guests or an unexpected invitation to dinner, aim to follow your meal plan; it will keep your mealtimes organized and ensure you don't waste food.
  • Cook simply. Dinners can be simple and nutritious and they need not resemble meals from a cooking show. For example, a simple heart-healthy meal comprised of grilled chicken, whole grain pasta tossed in olive oil and Parmesan cheese, a side dish of steamed broccoli or a salad will not take much longer to prepare than a trip to your local hamburger place.
  • Experiment with new recipes. Search the Internet or the cookbooks in your pantry for meals rich in heart-healthy foods. Try different recipes each week so mealtimes never become boring.
  • Build your recipe collection. The more simple and nutritious meals you add to your recipe collection, the more options you'll have each week.
  • Work leftovers into your meal planning. When you plan your week's heart-healthy meals, be sure that two or three of the dinners lend themselves to leftovers that you incorporate into the next day's lunch or dinner. This saves you time and it also gives you healthy midday meals to pack to work or school.
  • Be diligent. You may find meal planning a dreaded task but stick with it. Planning ahead eliminates that dreaded decision of what to cook for dinner and it allows you to keep your family's diet healthy. You'll also be pleasantly surprised how easy your meals become.

Heart-healthy meal planning will not only make your cooking time more efficient and enjoyable, it also helps protect your family from developing heart disease and builds an important foundation of healthy eating for your kids to pass on to their families when they are adults.

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