By Colleen Doyle, MS, RD
Love is in the air - and not just because Valentine's Day is right around the corner. It's also National Heart Month - a time to show our hearts a little love, and do what we can to reduce our risk heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
Fortunately, there are things we can put in our cereal bowls, lunch boxes and dinner plates every day that can help reduce our own risk for developing heart disease. Not only that, a lot of these things can also be part of a healthy diet that can also reduce your risk of developing a variety of types of cancer. A two-for-one! Now who wouldn't love that?
Oats, beans, and apples
You've probably heard that we should eat more fiber. There are two types of fiber: soluble fiber, which helps reduce serum cholesterol levels and is therefore good for your heart; and insoluble fiber, which helps keep a healthy GI tract, which is good for your colon!
Oats, beans, and apples - along with other fruits, vegetables and grains - are great sources of primarily soluble fiber, but contain insoluble fiber, as well. In general, I tend to tell people to not get too hung up on what type of fiber they eat - just to eat more! Shoot for 25-30 grams of fiber each day. Check out Jump on the ‘bran wagon' for better health to see how easy it is to get that amount with a little planning.
Bananas, berries, and broccoli
Eating more fruits and vegetables is important for reducing heart disease risk. Low in calories and bursting with nutrients, fruits and vegetables can help reduce high blood pressure (a risk factor for heart disease) and also may help with weight control - an important way to reduce your risk of both heart disease and cancer.
Shoot for at least 2.5 cups of colorful fruits and vegetables each day, and because we don't know which of the hundreds of nutrients that are packaged in produce are most protective for our health - eat a variety each day! Sprinkle berries on your cereal, add lettuce and tomato to your sandwich, or start your dinner with a salad topped with red peppers and carrots.
Brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and....popcorn
Brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and yes, even popcorn, are whole grains - foods that are packed with fiber and other nutrients that help regulate blood pressure. This same fiber and other nutrients may also help reduce the risk of colon cancer, and eating whole grains is a key component of the ACS recommendation to eat a mostly plant-based diet. Shoot for at least half your grain sources during the day to be whole grain - kick off the day with a 100% bran cereal, snack on some popcorn (skip the butter!), wrap your fish taco at dinner in a corn tortilla.
Salmon, tuna, and mackerel
These fish contain omega 3 fatty acids - a type of fat that may help reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and also blood pressure. (Other sources include walnuts, flaxseed, and canola oil). The American Heart Association recommends that we eat fish - particularly these types - at least 2 times per week.
While it doesn't appear that eating fish high in omega-3s impact cancer risk, serving fish in place of red meat like beef, pork or lamb is a healthy swap, as red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. So why not swap out a filet mignon with a filet of salmon sometime this week?
Avocados, nuts, and seeds
Not only can these foods add some great texture and flavor to your diet, they also provide heart-healthy poly- and monounsaturated fats which can help lower your cholesterol. For years, we used to think the type of fat you eat impacted cancer risk, but the research just hasn't panned out on this. While these foods may not directly influence cancer risk, they can and should be included as part of an overall healthy diet. One thing to keep in mind - they are high in calories, so you don't want to go overboard!
Red wine and dark chocolate
Well, we can't talk about heart health around Valentine's Day and not bring up red wine and dark chocolate! Moderate alcohol consumption (no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 for men) is associated with reduced heart disease risk. Red wine, with its particularly high level of antioxidants, has been linked for years with heart health, although the jury is still out on this (some studies suggest that grape juice may have the same impact). Similarly, some studies suggest that small amounts of high quality dark chocolate (look for those labeled with ‘at least 70% cocoa') may also offer some heart-healthy benefits due to its high levels of antioxidants.
Not to be a buzz-kill (pun intended), but both of these are examples of how too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Even though moderate consumption of red wine may reduce heart disease risk, risk of breast cancer increases at this level. And too much dark chocolate? That's a lot of extra calories, sugar, and fat. But a 5-oz. glass of cabernet and a small piece of dark chocolate with your Valentine....? You decide!
What will you start doing TODAY to reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer?
Editor's note: This blog was originally published on the American Cancer Society Choose You blog.
Doyle is director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society.