Did you know that Valentine’s Day isn’t the only “heart holiday” you can celebrate in February? It’s also heart month! And, what better way to recognize it than to learn how to protect one of your most valuable organs. Every hour about 12 Canadians die of heart disease, making it the second leading cause of death in Canada (1). While there are a number of factors that are beyond your control, you do have control over one of the most important factors in your overall heart health: your food choices.
Top nutrition tips for a healthy heart this February:
Enjoy more fruits and vegetables.
You might have heard this one from your parents as a kid, but they were really onto something! Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables gives your body the nutrients and antioxidants it needs to help keep you and your heart healthy. For every serving of fruit or vegetables you eat, you can lower your risk of a coronary event by 4%! (2) Not sure how many fruits and veggies you should be eating? As per Canada’s Food Guide, try to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal. In addition to the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients these foods offer, they are also a good source of fibre. Continue reading to learn more about the connection between heart health and fibre intake!
Strategies to include more fruits and vegetables in your meals:
Next time you are at the grocery store, take a look at the selection of produce and choose something new to try. Who knows, you may come across a new favourite food! Aside from the many different types of fruits and vegetables, there are also so many ways to prepare and enjoy them – fresh, sautéed, roasted, steamed, and so on. Experimenting with these foods can be a fun way to include more of them in your diet, providing you with all the nutrition and heart protecting properties they contain.
Increase your intake of fibre.
As mentioned above, fibre intake is another important nutritional factor when it comes to decreasing your risk of heart disease. More specifically, it is soluble fibre that helps to lower your LDL cholesterol (frequently referred to as “bad cholesterol”). Soluble fibre is found in oats, pulses, and certain types of fruits and vegetables such as oranges, avocado, broccoli and sweet potato. Many of these foods also naturally contain small amounts of plant sterols (also known as phytosterols), which can contribute to lowering bad cholesterol levels.
Strategies to include more soluble fibre in your daily intake:
- Enjoy overnight oats for breakfast
- Snack on veggies and hummus
- Add lentils or beans to your recipes. Try making our vegetarian quinoa chili or mushroom barley stew
- Top your Greek yogurt and berries with bran buds
- Check out our previous blog post to learn more about fibre
Lower your salt intake.
This is one of the big takeaways from the updated food guide, but also an important recommendation for lowering risk of heart disease. Health Canada recommends healthy adults consume 1,500 mg of sodium per day and avoid going over 2,300 mg (1 tsp salt) (3). Unfortunately, we know that most Canadians consume approximately double the recommended amount every day! A high salt intake can lead to increased blood pressure, which is a leading risk factor in cardiovascular disease, and while you may know to not overdo it with the saltshaker, there are many hidden sources of added sodium like canned soup, condiments, processed meats and cheese. Be sure to read labels and be aware of these!
Strategies to lower your salt intake:
- Cook more meals at home using less salt
- Read the labels of pre-packaged foods and choose the lower sodium or no-salt-added option
- Replace salt in recipes with fresh/dried herbs, spices, or citrus juice and zest
- Remove the saltshaker from the dinner table
Focus on healthy fats.
Not all fats are bad. In fact, not only do you need a certain amount of fat to keep you healthy, certain fats actually help to protect your heart! Mono- and polyunsaturated fats, typically found in nuts, seeds, olive oil, fatty fish and avocado, may help improve your blood cholesterol when used in place of saturated and trans fats (4). Omega-3 fatty acids in particular are a type of polyunsaturated fat with anti-inflammatory properties, and they can help reduce the amount of triglycerides found in the blood (5). A good source of omega-3 fats is fatty fish such as salmon, trout and sardines. If your diet permits, try including at least 2 servings of fatty fish a week. Although not as effective in decreasing risk of heart disease as fatty fish, some great plant-based sources of omega 3’s include ground flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Strategies to include healthy fats in your meals:
- Top your salad with chopped nuts and seeds
- Make homemade salad dressing from extra-virgin olive oil
- Enjoy fatty fish twice a week
- Try guacamole and veggies for a snack
Prepare more foods at home.
Pre-packaged and processed foods often contain more salt, sugar and saturated fat than their home-cooked counterparts do. When you prepare meals at home, you have more control over the ingredients that go into your food. This might seem daunting, especially when access to restaurants, fast-food shops and cafeterias is so abundant, but making meals and snacks at home does not have to be time-consuming or complicated. Meals as simple as scrambled eggs with a slice of whole grain toast and half an avocado are nutritionally balanced and quick to make! Cooking at home is also much cheaper than eating out in restaurants or from pre-packaged containers. Just take it step by step and try cooking an extra meal or two a week at home instead of eating out. Overall, cooking at home will give you the liberty of choosing more whole foods and avoiding the excess sodium and unhealthy fats – bringing you that much closer to a healthy heart.
Written in collaboration with Elizabeth Clark, RD, nutrition volunteer