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By: Elizabeth Rahavi, RD Date: 2/24/2012

Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, can you hear that noise? It’s the sound of your heart beating, working hard on your behalf, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. The heart is one of the most amazing organs in our body, and American Heart Month in February gives us time to pause and appreciate its hard work. As my colleague mentioned in her post earlier this month, there are all kinds of intangible benefits that are connected to heart health and exercise and the same is true when it comes to the diet.

You’ve probably heard that there are certain foods that you should limit in order to promote heart health. This is true. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, individuals should build a diet that is low in sodium, saturated and trans fats and cholesterol, mostly because of their effects on the cardiovascular system. However, this is just one half of the story. It is also important to replace these foods with functional foods that can promote heart health. Functional foods are foods or dietary components that may provide a health benefit that stretches beyond basic nutrition. Try these quick tips to reap heart health benefits from your diet:

Make half your plate fruits and veggies. This easy visual will add variety and color to your plate. Did you know that many of the healthful components in fruits and vegetables can be grouped together based on color. Adding color to your diet can make your plate more visually appealing and provide heart health benefits. All forms of fruits and vegetables, whether fresh, canned, frozen, dried, or in the form of 100 percent juice, can assist  in your effort to promote heart health.

Add fiber to every meal. Fiber can reduce the risk of heart disease because of its ability to help lower LDL cholesterol, also known as the “bad cholesterol.” Try having a whole grain cereal for breakfast, whole wheat bread for lunch and brown rice with dinner, for example, to make sure that you get fiber  at every meal. You can also look for nutritional bars with added fiber to make sure that your snacks have fiber too. Aim for food products that have at least 3 grams or more of fiber per serving.

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.

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 a 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 level 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.

Fat Facts to Count on. The word is spreading; certain fats can promote heart health because of their beneficial effects on LDL cholesterol. Enjoy the health benefits of a moderate-fat diet by choosing oils and spreads rich in unsaturated fat, such as olive, canola, high oleic safflower, sunflower, corn, or soybean oils. Salmon, sardines, herring, trout, and tuna are terrific sources of the omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are types of polyunsaturated fats that may reduce the risk of heart disease. Check food labels, as omega-3s have  also been added to some brands of peanut butter, milk, mayonnaise, cooking oil, cereal, pasta, eggs and nutrition bars.

When it comes to improving your heart health through diet, the options are limitless. My suggestions  are just a starting point. You can learn more about heart health by watching our video, “Eating for Heart Health” developed in partnership with David Grotto, RD.

Tell me what you do to promote heart health.

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