According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the leading cause of death globally. On average, someone dies of heart disease every 36 seconds in the United States. Although many factors contribute to one’s heart health, wholesome nutrition is a major factor in combating plaque buildup in coronary arteries, which results in the most common type of heart disease, coronary artery disease.
February is American Heart Month, and experts from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Cardiovascular Institute recommend that everyone incorporate heart-healthy foods and nutrients into their daily diet to prevent cardiovascular disease and maintain a healthy heart.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that a poor diet — among diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use — is one of the most influential lifestyle choices that put people at a higher risk for heart disease. Experts encourage limiting sugary drinks, sweets, fatty or processed meats, solid fats, and salty or highly processed foods to maintain a heart-healthy diet.
“When choosing heart-healthy foods, it is important to stick to vegetables that have a rich color like spinach, avocados, bell peppers, carrots and zucchini,” Gilchrist said. “Some heart-healthy fruit options include strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. These are all full of important nutrients that play a central role in heart health.”
Gilchrist reminds people that it is important to not substitute fresh fruits with 100 percent fruit juice or sweetened dried fruit due to the high amount of sugar in both options.
Foods that are high in fiber also play a large role in protecting heart health. Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that help regulate blood pressure and maintain heart health.
An easy way to incorporate whole grains into one’s diet is to replace refined grains with whole grains. Refined grains have been processed in a way that removes the bran and germ, stripping the grain of important nutrients the body needs. Choosing whole-grain bread instead of white bread or whole-wheat pasta instead of egg noodles are good examples of how people can incorporate whole grains into their diet. These small substitutions add up when it comes to maintaining heart health.
“The benefits of foods rich in fiber go beyond just heart health,” Gilchrist said. “Foods that are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals can make you feel full longer, lower bad cholesterol, control blood pressure and help you maintain a healthy weight.”
In addition to choosing heart-healthy ingredients, the CDC recommends cooking meals at home to maintain a healthy and balanced diet.
“When you cook at home, you have more control over which ingredients are included in the dish, and you can adjust these ingredients based on your preferences,” Gilchrist said. “Cooking at home also saves money, and with so many easy recipes available, it saves time too.”
Each year, UAB Medicine partners with the American Heart Association to develop a heart-healthy recipe book filled with delicious, simple and affordable meals. Download the 2022 Heart-Healthy Recipe Book here.