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As Heart Health Month comes to an end it’s important to remember that good nutrition and lifestyle play big roles in keeping your heart healthy. You can decrease your risk of heart disease by making smart food choices. Fill up on fiber-rich whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils. Choose plant-based fats, such as avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil, instead of animal-based fats such as butter. Read on to learn more about ways to protect your heart.

Fruits and Vegetables Matter

Focus on eating more plant-based foods, such as vegetables and legumes, and fewer meats high in saturated fat. Not only are fruits and vegetables low in calories and high in dietary fiber and antioxidants, they can help keep blood pressure in check. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke. What makes fruits and veggies so good? They are packed with potassium, a mineral that has been shown to lower blood pressure in clinical studies.

The recommended amount of potassium for adult men is 3,400 milligrams per day. Choose foods first as a source of potassium and always check with your health care provider before taking any supplements. Include at least 2 cups of fruit and 2½ to 3 cups of vegetables daily to help with your potassium intake. Great picks to help you reach this goal include tomatoes, spinach, potatoes, bananas and squash.

Fat Matters for the Heart

The amount and type of fat you eat makes a difference. Research has found that saturated fat may have negative effects on heart health. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting the amount of saturated fat you consume. Foods such as bacon, red meat, butter and ice cream contain saturated fat. Current recommendations also include avoiding trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils. These fats can clog arteries and raise cholesterol levels. Trans fats can be found in commercial baked goods and fried foods.

Replacing sources of saturated fats and trans fats with unsaturated fats has been shown to be beneficial for overall cardiovascular health. Foods including olive oil, canola oil, avocados, walnuts and almonds contain unsaturated fat, which may help cholesterol levels by raising “good” HDL cholesterol and lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol.

Omega-3 fatty-acids, a type of unsaturated fat, have been found to be helpful in preventing sudden death from heart attacks. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and herring, contain two types of omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

Another type of omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) also provides cardiac benefits. Flaxseeds and walnuts contain ALA. Include 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed or 1 ounce (about a small handful) of walnuts on a regular basis to increase your ALA intake.

Physical Activity Does the Heart Good

Aim for at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity, aerobic activity throughout the week and ideally on most days of the week. Simple activities make a difference. This includes walking, jogging, biking and dancing. Participate in strength training, such as weightlifting, at least two times per week. Remember to incorporate balance and flexibility exercises, too.

Prioritize Stress Management

Even if you eat right and exercise regularly, poorly managed stress can wreak havoc on your health. Getting enough sleep, practicing relaxation techniques and nurturing relationships are healthy habits that can help protect you from the harmful effects of stress.

Source: Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN, Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics

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