Top Eight Ways to Improve Heart Health

By: Elizabeth Rahavi, RD Date: 2/18/10

U.S. officials from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a mixed bag of American Health Statistics this week: On average, American life expectancy is increasing, yet we are living longer with more diseases. According to the report, heart disease and cancer are still the number one cause of death in the U.S. Major risk factors for heart disease includes excess weight, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Interestingly, the report from the CDC found that hypertension levels are on the rise, with 32.6 percent of the population suffering from high blood pressure in 2007-2008, as compared with 28.9 percent in 1999-2000. On the other hand, cholesterol levels are coming under control. And it's no surprise that rates of obesity are also on the rise.

Regardless of these changes in risk factors related to heart disease, Americans are still concerned about their heart health. Findings from the IFIC Functional Foods/Foods for Health Survey show that 48 percent of Americans cite heart-related concerns, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular health, as their top health concern. Since February is American Heart Month, there is no better time than the present to focus on how we can keep our hearts healthy to keep us moving today and tomorrow. Getting started can be as easy as making one small change today, and following up in a few weeks with another change. In addition, to consuming a diet that is low in saturated and trans fats, sodium and cholesterol, you can also include certain foods into your diet that can promote heart health.

Pick one of these eight tips to get started today:

·         For the Love of Fiber: Foods that are a good source of fiber contain at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Check the Nutrition Facts panel on a food or beverage package to ensure that you are getting at fiber in your diet. Adult men (ages 19-50 years old) need at least 38 grams of fiber, and women of the same age should aim for at least 25 grams per day. Your best bets in the grocery store are brown rice, certain ready-to-cereals and breads, as well as crackers, fruits and vegetables. Beans are also an excellent source of dietary fiber.

·         Great Grains: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that half of your grains are whole grains. Making simple switches like choosing 100 percent whole wheat bread and pasta can help you increase your whole grain intake.

·         Soy-Perfect: According to the Food and Drug Administration 25 mg of soy protein can help reduce the risk of heart disease. Try adding a packet of soy protein to an afternoon or morning smoothie, or use soy milk with your breakfast cereal.

·         Pack on the Potassium: Many fruits and vegetables such as bananas, potatoes, beats, beans, oranges, spinach, and apricots, are filled with potassium, which can help blunt the effects of sodium on blood pressure. All forms of fruits and vegetables, whether fresh, canned, frozen, dried, or 100 percent juice can assist you in your effort to promote heart health.

·         Dig-In To Dark Chocolate: Certain phytonutrients in cocoa, known as flavanols, can help promote healthy circulation. When enjoyed in moderation, dark chocolate can be part of healthy diet that promotes heart health.

·         Spread Some Heart Love: Plant sterols are cholesterol-reducing food ingredients that come from plant-based foods such as vegetables, nuts and seeds. Plant sterols lower your body's cholesterol levels by competing with dietary cholesterol for absorption. You can add plant sterols to your eating plan by looking for food products that contain added plant sterols, such as granola bars, orange juice or vegetable oil spreads.

·         Get Nutty: A handful of nuts (about 1½ ounces) such as almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts every day may also help reduce the risk of heart disease. Portion out servings at the beginning of the week and keep them in your desk draw for a heart-healthy snack at work.

·         Take 30 for heart health: Find the time to fit 30 minutes of exercise into your daily routine. This can be done in 10 minute increments three times a day. Try finding ten minutes in the morning before work for a quick walk around the neighborhood and follow this up with a ten minute walk during lunch and another one after dinner.

Learn more about heart promoting functional foods watching our new video on the "Foods for Health: Eating for Heart Health" hot topics page. The heart health video is the fourth in a series of videos, featuring the "Guyatitian," Dave Grotto, RD, focusing on the role of functional foods in supporting health.