By Natasha Kubis

According to the Center of Disease Control, about 647,000 Americans die from heart disease each year—that is one in every four deaths. The American Heart Association states that a healthy diet and lifestyle choices may reduce your risk of heart disease by 80%. February is National Heart Month and it is the perfect time to review your lifestyle and make heart healthy choices.

Fat Facts

We need healthy fats in our diet, but not all fats are created equal. One fat we do not need is trans fat. Trans fats are industry-produced fats often used in packaged goods, snack foods, cakes, margarines, and fast foods in order to add flavor and texture. They are known to increase your risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke and should be avoided.

  Trans fats are made when food manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats like shortening or margarine. Animal foods, such as red meats and dairy, have small amounts of trans fats, but most trans fats come from processed foods and those are the ones of which to be the most wary.

  Your body does not need or benefit from trans fats. They raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and they also lower your HDL (good) cholesterol. High LDL along with low HDL levels can cause cholesterol to build up in your arteries. This increases your risk for heart disease and stroke.

  Eating too much trans fat can cause you to gain weight and may also increase your risk for type 2 diabetes. Staying at a healthy weight can reduce your risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.

While trans fats serve no purpose but to give processed foods a longer shelf life and raise your cholesterol, healthy fats may help lower your risk of heart disease, if you eat them in place of unhealthy fats. Monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat are considered more heart healthy fats.

Monounsaturated fats help lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and raise “good” (HDL) cholesterol. Sources include canola, olive, and peanut oils, olives, avocados, nuts, and nut butters.

Polyunsaturated fats are known as essential fats because the body cannot make them and needs them from food sources. Omega-3 fatty acid is an example and it can help lower triglycerides, a type of fat that clogs arteries. Sources include fish (such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, and sardines), ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil, soybeans, walnuts, and seeds. To get more omega-3 fatty acids, have fish twice a week, add ground flaxseed to cereals, soups, and smoothies, or sprinkle walnuts on salads.

Saturated fats, primarily found in animal products, have been linked with increased heart disease risks. This idea has been recently debated and the conclusion is to eat it sparingly and in moderation. Foods high in saturated fat are fatty cuts of beef, pork, lamb, high-fat dairy foods (whole milk, butter, cheese, sour cream, ice cream), and tropical oils (coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter).

Tips For Eating Well

  Add more fruit and vegetables. These are low in calories and rich in dietary fiber. Eating more fruits and vegetables may help you cut back on higher calorie foods, such as meat, cheese, and snack foods. Grabbing a handful of baby carrots, instead of crackers, is always a good idea.

  Go for the grains. Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that play a role in regulating blood pressure and heart health. A whole grain still contains its endosperm, germ, and bran, in contrast to refined grains, which retain only the endosperm. This is the major difference between brown rice and white rice. Some examples of whole grains are barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur (cracked wheat), millet, and oatmeal.

  Eat lean. Lean meat, poultry, fish, legumes, and eggs are some of your best sources of protein. Fish is a good alternative to high-fat meats. Legumes — beans, peas and lentils — also are good sources of protein, contain less fat, and no cholesterol. Substituting plant protein for animal protein will reduce your fat and cholesterol intake while increasing your fiber intake. It may be great to add a couple of “meat free” days to the week and add in a homemade veggie burger or a lentil loaf.

  Reduce the sodium in your food. Eating a lot of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Reducing sodium is an important part of a heart-healthy diet and can be done by cutting the amount of salt you add to food at the table or while cooking. Much of the salt you eat comes from canned or processed foods, such as soups, baked goods, and frozen dinners. Eating fresh foods or making your own soups and stews can reduce the amount of salt you eat.

Get Moving

A sedentary lifestyle is one of the top risk factors for heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends fitting in at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of heart-pumping physical activity per week. This activity serves to strengthen your heart and cardiovascular system by improving your circulation, helping your body use oxygen better, increasing endurance, lowering blood pressure, helping reduce body fat, and maintaining your weight. It is also a key way to help you reduce stress, tension, anxiety, and depression. Brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, playing tennis, and jumping rope are great activities to benefit the heart.

Squash Stress

Stress is an unavoidable part of life and contributes to 80% of all major illnesses, including cardiovascular disease. Here are some practices to help reduce stress.

  Focused breathing is a valuable tool to calm anxiety. The 4-7-8 Breathing Method is a 3-step breathing technique that is intended to slow your heart rate and calm your mind. To practice this technique breathe in deeply through your nose for 4 seconds, then hold your breath for 7 seconds and exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this cycle for four rounds.

  Progressive relaxation works to relax one muscle at a time until the entire body is at ease. Beginning with the muscles in the face, the muscles are contracted gently for one to two seconds and then relaxed. This is repeated several times. The same technique is used for other muscle groups, usually in the following sequence: jaw and neck, upper arms, lower arms, fingers, chest, abdomen, buttocks, thighs, calves, and feet. Eventually all of the muscles of the body feel at ease.

Our heart is a well used machine that beats about 2.5 billion times over the average lifetime. All that hard work is responsible for pushing millions of gallons of blood to every part of the body, which aids in all the physiological functions required to live. When the heart stops, essential functions fail. Poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, infections, unlucky genes, and poorly managed stress can be extra taxing on the heart. Be kind to your heart and show it some love, so it continues to perform efficiently.

Natasha Kubis is a licensed acupuncturist and certified yoga teacher.
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