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February is American Heart Month! A time for many groups around the country to educate and raise awareness about heart disease. Despite these efforts, many women are unaware that heart disease is not just a “man’s disease” but is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.

In fact, 1 in 4 women in the United States dies of heart disease, while 1 in 30 dies of breast cancer.

Fortunately, heart disease is largely preventable with many things women can do, including physical activity. Even a modest 150 minutes each week of physical activity has been shown to be cardio-protective, which may be encouraging for the active female. However, factors like cholesterol, eating habits, smoking, and aging (menopause) can increase a woman’s risk of strokes, heart attacks and peripheral vascular disease – what together are called cardiovascular disease (CVD).

To reduce your risk of heart disease, The American Heart Association recommends the following:

  • Know your blood pressure.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Talk to your doctor about whether you should be tested for diabetes.
  • Have your cholesterol and triglycerides checked regularly.
  • Lower your stress level and find healthy ways to cope with stress.
  • Make healthy food choices and maintain a healthy weight for your body.

What is a heart healthy diet?

A heart-healthy diet stresses a dietary pattern that consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats, rather than the negative consequences of a single food or food group. For many years the emphasis has been on eliminating single nutrients (such as cholesterol, saturated fat, and sugar) that promote the development of atherosclerosis, which is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries that is often the underlying cause of heart attacks, strokes and CVD.

Scientists have recognized that this single-nutrient-based strategy is not enough and are now emphasizing a different approach based on whole foods and dietary patterns, such as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan and Mediterranean diet. These dietary patterns take advantage of the beneficial effects of the additive and synergistic nature of nutrients and foods in the body.

What foods are in a heart healthy diet?

  • Fruits and vegetables. Aim for 5 or more servings a day. One serving is equivalent to one cup fresh or raw fruits or vegetables (about the size of your fist), and ½ cup cooked (about ¼ of your plate).
  • Whole grains. Aim for half of your intake to be whole grains, such as whole wheat breads and cereals, oatmeal, corn, brown and wild rice, rye, barley, buckwheat, and quinoa.
  • Low-fat dairy products. These include milk, soy milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir and other milk products.
  • Fish, poultry, beans, soy foods and eggs. Moderate portions (3 to 4 ounces or the size of the palm of your hand) of lean animal protein, seafood and plant-based proteins, such as soy.
  • Nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado. The type of fat you eat is important, including more unsaturated fats, such as those listed here, as well as omega-3 fatty acids found in foods like walnuts, flax seed and salmon.

Are there any foods I should limit?

Despite popular belief driven by our diet-focused culture, calories in food are not equal. There is no doubt that excessive caloric consumption combined with inadequate physical activity is the primary driver of excess weight gain and health problems. However, generalizations that certain nutrients (i.e. saturated fat and carbohydrates) increase one’s risk of CVD have been challenged and disputed in recent scientific literature. For example, consumption of saturated fat from dairy foods is associated with decreased risk of CVD, while the consumption of the same amount of saturated fat from other foods (such as red meat) does not have the same positive result.

As the scientific literature continues to unfold regarding heart-healthy eating, a few general principles about foods to limit or consume mindfully in moderation include the following:

  • Saturated fats found in red meat, processed meats, bacon, fried foods and baked goods.
  • Trans fats (partially hydrogenated oil) found in commercially prepared baked goods, snack foods, and fried foods.
  • Sodium, found in salt and added to many baked and convenience foods, can increase blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day and ideally no more than 1,500 mg for those with high blood pressure.
  • Added sugars, such as those found in sodas, cake, candy, etc.
  • Some research shows a link between moderate alcohol intake and a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. For women, moderate intake is up to 1 drink per day. For men, it is up to 2 drinks a day. One drink is defined as a 5-ounce glass of wine, 12-ounce beer, or 1.5 ounce shot of hard liquor.

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