Honor Your Heart and Health During March

In February we honor the heart by celebrating Valentine’s Day and our loved ones. March is National Nutrition Month. Honor your heart and health this month by incorporating heart healthy foods into at least one meal or snack daily and increasing your physical activity.

Your heart is an amazing organ that beats more than 2.5 billion times during a 70-year lifetime. It works hard for you every day. Each day your heart beats an estimated 100,000 times and pumps approximately 2,000 gallons of blood. By making a few lifestyle changes, you can protect your heart from disease and ensure that it works as efficiently as possible!

In 2005, almost 40% of the U.S. population suffered from cardiovascular (heart) disease. Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. Additionally, one in three American women has some form of cardiovascular disease. These are staggering statistics but have heart because you can prevent or reduce the likelihood of developing heart disease by modifying eating habits and increasing physical activity. The major risk factors for heart disease are high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, tobacco use, diabetes, physical inactivity and poor nutrition.

Below is a list of foods that will benefit your heart and why exercise is also essential for the well-being of this hardworking organ.

1) Fruits & Vegetables: Research shows that individuals who eat 5 or more ½ cup servings of fruits & vegetables each day reduce their risk of heart attack & stroke compared with individuals who eat less than 3 servings per day.

a. Best sources: Whole fruits & vegetables (fresh or frozen are best).

b. Good sources: 100% fruit or vegetable juices. Look for low-sodium vegetable juices.

2) Antioxidants: Scientific data has shown that antioxidants may help protect against heart disease.

a. Best sources:

i. Lycopene: red, fleshy fruits & vegetables such as watermelon & tomatoes.

ii. Vitamin C: citrus fruits such as oranges & grapefruit; bell peppers & broccoli.

iii. Vitamin E: nuts, seeds, plant oils, & wheat germ.

3) Soluble Fiber: Helps to reduce blood cholesterol by attaching to cholesterol & bringing it out of your body. It may also reduce the intestinal absorption of cholesterol, & it may lower blood pressure. According to research, increasing your intake of soluble fiber by 5 – 10 grams daily can reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol by 3 – 5%. Aim for 7 – 13 grams of soluble fiber daily & 25 – 30 grams total fiber per day.

a. Best sources:

i. Oatmeal (preferably steel cut or Old Fashioned oats), oat & rice bran.

ii. Whole grains: barley, quinoa, and wheat (try one of these ancient grains: farro, teft, kamut).

iii. Beans, lentils, peas, corn, white & sweet potatoes (with skin), yams.

iv. Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, broccoli), carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, avocado.

v. Fruit: apples, pears, bananas, peaches, berries, citrus, cantaloupe, raisins, prunes, figs, dates.

vi. Nuts & seeds: almonds, ground flaxseed, sunflower seeds.

4) Plant stanols/sterols: Research has shown that plant stanols/sterols (natural substances found in small amounts in the membranes of plants) compete with cholesterol for absorption in the small intestine, effectively reducing the amount of cholesterol absorbed by up to 50%, & lowering LDL cholesterol levels by 5 – 14%.

a. Best sources:

i. Fruits, vegetables & legumes.

ii. Nuts & seeds: Found in relatively high amounts in pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, & wheat germ.

iii. Plant oils: canola oil, olive oil, corn oil & sunflower oil.

iv. Butter spreads: Benecol, Take Control & Promise Activ.

v. Goal for individuals with high cholesterol: 2 – 3 grams per day. Each tablespoon of the above butter spreads supplies 1 gram of plant sterol/stanols.

5) Healthy Fats

a. Omega-3: According to scientific research, individuals who ate diets high in omega-3s were 30 – 40% less likely to suffer from heart disease & had fewer cases of sudden death from heart arrhythmia. Omega-3s appear to reduce inflammation, reduce high blood pressure, decrease triglycerides, raise HDL cholesterol, & make blood thinner & less sticky decreasing the possibility of clot formation.

i. Best sources: wild salmon, herring, tuna, mackerel (not king), sardines, anchovies, rainbow trout, Pacific oysters, omega-3 fortified eggs, flaxseed (ground & oil), walnuts, butternuts (white walnuts), seaweed, walnut oil, canola oil, soybeans.

b. Monounsaturated: Believed to protect individuals against heart disease by reducing blood pressure. For the best health benefits, replace saturated fats & trans fats with monounsaturated fats rather than simply adding monounsaturated fats to your meal plan.

i. Best sources:

1. Olive oil, canola oil, avocado, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, peanuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, pine nuts, peanut butter, olives.

2. Even though nuts are an excellent source of heart healthy fats because the calories can quickly add up, keep portions reasonable!

a. 1 – 1.25 oz (a palm full or about 3 – 4 Tbsp. = approximately 160 – 200 calories, 14 – 18 g fat

6) Garlic:

a. The naturally occurring compound called alicin is the active part of garlic that appears to help reduce cholesterol. It acts as an antioxidant. It also may affect the way LDL cholesterol is used in the body & lower triglycerides.

7) Alcohol: Benefits vary depending on what your cardiovascular risk factors are.

a. If you have high triglycerides, alcohol should be consumed sparingly, as a treat because even small amounts of alcohol can raise triglyceride levels.

b. Research has shown that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol (no more than 1 serving a day for women & no more than 2 servings a day for men consumed slowly with a meal) decreases the risk of death from heart disease by about 12%.

i. 1 serving of alcohol = 12 oz of beer; 5 oz of wine; one shot of hard alcohol.

c. Alcohol appears to increase the good HDL cholesterol & prevent clots. Even though all alcohol has heart healthy benefits, red wine also contains antioxidants called flavonoids & resveratrol, which increase these benefits.

d. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation & with a meal. If you don’t drink alcohol, I wouldn’t recommend starting just for these health benefits. Aim for a healthy, well-balanced diet & you’ll be on your way to a healthy heart with or without alcohol & its extra calories!

8) Move more: Strive to be physically active most days of the week. Physical activity reduces stress, provides energy and makes you feel good. It also has numerous health benefits such as weight maintenance or loss, raises HDL (good) cholesterol & lowers blood pressure. Make small changes: take the stairs, park farther away when doing errands, do a few extra “laps” around the mall or grocery store, begin a weight lifting program, and take short body and mind breaks at work by using a restroom or water station that’s further away or get off of your chair and stretch or move. If time is an issue, break your exercise into shorter periods. You receive the same benefits from two 15-minute walks as one 30 minute walk.

Work to protect your heart from disease by eating healthy and being physically active. Aim to achieve one goal each week during National Nutrition month and you’ll be on your way to a stronger, healthier heart!


Katie Jeffrey, MS, RD, CD-N, LD-N, is the owner of FitNutrition, LLC, in Stonington, CT. For more information, call 860-917-6131 or go online to www.fitnutrition.net.


Bauer, J. Joy Bauer’s food cures. (2007). Rodale: NY.

Retrieved on February 12, 2009 from http://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/heartworks/heartfacts.aspx

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