Hard to believe that another month is gone and we’re well into the swing of things in 2023!
While it is important to prioritize heart health every month of the year, February is special as it is American Heart Month and helps to call awareness to heart disease, the leading cause of death for people living in the United States. Data shows that a person dies every 34 seconds from heart disease.
According to the CDC, people with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke than someone who doesn’t have diabetes. People with diabetes are also more likely to experience heart failure.
While some people may have an increased risk due to having a higher genetic predisposition to certain heart conditions, such as high cholesterol and blood pressure, we can all take steps to reduce our risks by doing things like increasing physical activity, quitting smoking (if you’re having trouble quitting, try this free app from the FDA and National Cancer Institute), keeping A1c and time in range at goal and by eating a diet filled with heart healthy foods. Most importantly, get tested for heart disease and take care of your heart.
In some cases, these lifestyle changes can help to prevent heart disease altogether. Let’s take a look at some of the more unique (and budget friendly) cardiovascular friendly foods you can add to your plate to support optimal heart health.
Fish has long been touted as one of the best heart healthy foods for people looking to increase their cardiovascular health. It is a source of a type of unsaturated fat called Omega-3 fatty acids (or Omega-3), which has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and improved brain health. It also may positively impact mental health and sleep quality, which can both increase risk of heart disease if not managed properly.
The problem with fish? It can be expensive and not everyone likes the taste! As food costs rise, fresh fish might not always be the most feasible option for your weekday menu.
To keep the grocery bill lower, I recommend looking at your local grocer to see what sales they might have or my personal favorite, canned fish! Canned fish used to get a bad reputation due to the potential high sodium content and mercury, a toxin to all but one that can be especially dangerous for people who are pregnant. Today, brands, such as SafeCatch and WildPlanet, have gotten much better at reducing these amounts by testing every fish and offering salt free options. You can keep it simple by enjoying it as a snack, adding it to a salad, or making it a meal that the entire family can enjoy as fish cakes or nuggets!
As a self-proclaimed advocate of all things beans, I cannot stress enough how beneficial they can be to your health. They are a cheap source of protein, can be purchased without sodium, and are shelf stable so they’re readily available for you at any time!
I’ve spoken about how their high fiber content can help to improve heart health, but they also contain minerals such as folate and magnesium, which are not only good for your heart, but also may help with blood sugar management. Beans are also resistant starches, a specific type of carbohydrate that is not digested by the body. Resistant starches have not only been linked to improved heart health, but also more favorable blood sugars and stability. Try making your own bean dip to enjoy with fresh vegetables or making crunchy these air-fried beans as a snack.
And don’t judge this snack by its looks! Similar to the crispy chickpeas you can find in the grocery store, this quick, cheap and easy snack can be a great source of protein, fiber and flavor! Bean poppers, as we call them in the Wood household, can be a unique way to enjoy heart healthy beans.
Air Fried “Bean Poppers” Recipe (PDF)
My patients are always surprised whenever they hear me recommend popcorn as a great snack for people with diabetes. Popcorn is a whole grain and is a good source of heart healthy fiber, but did you know that it also is a source of antioxidants that may help to prevent heart disease? We often think of movie theater popcorn, which has a ton of sodium and butter, both things that can impact your heart health negatively. However, popcorn that you make at home can be a fantastic heart healthy (and affordable!) snack.
If you have a popcorn popper at home, you can use this to make a batch…or air pop your own on the stove or microwave, my personal favorite method. You don’t need to add oil, which not only helps reduce the caloric amount for those managing their weight, but also helps to reduce the negative impact on heart health! You can keep sodium levels managed by reducing the amount of salt you use to flavor the popcorn or by using a salt free seasoning to spice things up. My personal favorite way to enjoy it is with a little bit of salt and nutritional yeast, a vegan cheese substitute that is full of B vitamins and antioxidants that may also help to reduce heart disease.
Along with the foods mentioned above, increasing your intake of fruits, vegetables and fiber rich foods such as whole grains can also contribute to a lower risk of heart disease. You also want to be mindful of your consumption of sodium and saturated fat-laden red meats as this can also increase your risk. While you don’t have to eliminate the consumption of these foods entirely, you will help to protect your heart by limiting them to a few times a week.
Make it a goal to try incorporating one of the foods mentioned above at least once a week or use the American Heart Association’s Digital Grocery List when planning meals to jumpstart your new journey to a healthier heart.
You can even use the food tracker feature in your Glooko mobile app to help you every step of the way by tracking your exercise, food, blood pressure and more. I’m always looking at my data and being able to view my History on the app alongside my blood glucose data has been a tremendous help to identify patterns—I hope it can do the same for you!
Your friend in food,
Bridget Wood, RD, LD, CDCES