February is American Heart Month, so there’s no better time than now to examine heart health. Chronic heart disease has become a major problem in the United States. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports nearly 715,000 Americans suffer from heart attacks each year. Furthermore, one in four deaths in the US results from heart disease. Despite the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death among Americans, often it can be controllable and even prevented. There are several risk factors which contribute to the development of heart disease. Some risk factors like age and genetic probability are uncontrollable, but you can control your diet. Eating a low fat, low cholesterol diet and avoiding saturated fats, trans fats, salts and sugars will help you greatly reduce the risks of developing heart disease.

Our fast-paced lifestyle too often makes maintaining our health and fitness that much more difficult. To save time, we eat processed, canned, fast and frozen foods, all chocked full of preservatives that prolong its shelf life, while reducing yours. Eliminating processed foods from your diet is a great place to start for maintaining heart health. The sodium in salts used to preserve most canned foods causes your blood pressure to rise, putting more strain on the heart. This extra strain thickens and stiffens the muscular heart tissues, causing irregularities in the beat. Enjoying a fresh glass of orange juice is a quick and easy way to lower your blood pressure. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, drinking 2 cups of 100 percent orange juice daily will significantly reduce your resting (diastolic) blood pressure.

Fats and cholesterol are also major contributors to chronic heart disease. Several different types of fats are found in the foods we eat, and the ones to avoid most are saturated and trans fats. Foods that are high in saturated and trans fats include cream, cheese, butter, lard, and fatty meats like pork and beef. Trans fats are a byproduct of the chemical reaction that turns liquid vegetable oil into solid margarine or shortening. It’s a preservation process that prevents liquid vegetable oils from rotting. Trans fats boost levels of bad cholesterol in the blood as much as saturated fats do. Certain vegetable oils, along with most processed foods, contain both saturated and trans fats. Next time your food calls for vegetable oil, used extra-virgin olive. Its monounsaturated fat content actually works to reduce the presence of bad cholesterol in the blood, helping reduce your risk for heart disease.

There are two major types of cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HLD). The difference between the two can be summed up in that HDL is the good cholesterol and LDL is the bad type. LDL molecules transport fat into artery walls, facilitating atherosclerosis – the hardening of the arteries. The build-up caused by LDL causes the arteries to clog, increasing blood pressure and putting needless strain on the heart. The saturated fats found in red meat, butter, cheese and other dairy products boosts LDL levels in the blood. On the other hand, HDL molecules can remove fat molecules from the arterial walls, reversing this process. The easiest way to lower your LDL level is to cut down on fried foods. Next time try baking chicken instead of frying it.

There are plenty of heart-healthy food options to choose from, to reduce the risks of heart disease. Soluble fiber found in whole grains will bond to cholesterol molecules in the digestive system and removed them from the body as you pass waste. Excellent sources of whole grains are oatmeal, nuts, brown rice and wheat breads and pastas. Walnuts and almonds contain soluble fiber and monounsaturated fats that reduce levels of LDL in the blood. Salmon and avocados are natural sources of HDL, helping to keep your vasculature free flowing. Like salmon, mackerel, herring and tuna are all rich in HDL and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s reduce inflammation in the blood stream, another major risk factor for heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends eating five servings of fruits and vegetables each day as part of a heart healthy diet. Potassium rich foods like bananas, avocados and cranberries help maintain higher levels of HDL in the blood. Most berries like blueberries and strawberries contain antioxidants that remove free radicals from the bloodstream. Free radicals facilitate vascular inflammation, which over time can develop into heart disease. Dark green vegetables also help prevent heart disease. Broccoli, kale, spinach and asparagus are among the most heart healthy greens. A whole food diet and regular exercise are your keys to a healthy heart.