1st Lt. Jennifer T. West, MS, RD, LD

Clinical Dietetics Chief

Eisenhower Army Medical Center

FORT GORDON, Ga. -- February is the month of love, so they say. For many, it's time to turn that love inward, toward your heart. Not the spiritual, emotional heart, but the blood-pumping, life-giving one.

With the typical American diet and lifestyle, many people put themselves at risk for developing various heart diseases. Diets that are low in vegetables and fruits, and high in processed grains, added sugars, saturated fats and sodium are some risk factors for developing heart diseases such as unhealthy levels of fat in the blood (hyperlipidemia), high blood pressure (hypertension) and fatty deposits in the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart (coronary artery disease).

The Centers for Disease and Control reports that coronary artery disease is the most common of all heart diseases. Coronary artery disease can reduce or stop blood flow to the heart, causing a heart attack, or if developed over a long period of time, leading to heart failure.

The good news is that you can take action to reduce your risk of developing CAD and other heart diseases. Lifestyle changes, including increased physical activity and changing your eating habits, can go a long way in reducing your risk.

The CDC recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. Choosing an activity that gets your heart pumping is the goal. Walking, active yoga and general yard work are examples of moderate-intensity activity. Alternatively, 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity activity supports substantial health benefits, too. Running, jumping rope, hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack are some examples of vigorous-intensity activity.

Changing your eating habits doesn't have to be drastic to be effective. When registered dietitians and other health professional talk about a "heart-healthy" diet, it generally means to increase the amount of fiber in one's diet, reduce saturated fats and reduce salt. Each of these tasks can have a direct impact on your heart health.

For example, fiber can help reduce cholesterol levels. The type of fiber your body needs to do this is called soluble fiber. Think of this non-calorie nutrient as a magnet for cholesterol. Foods high in this type of fiber include whole grains (like oats), beans, whole fruits and nuts. The Institute of Medicine recommends that men eat 30-35 grams of fiber per day and women should eat 20-25 grams of fiber per day. Unfortunately, most Americans fall short of this goal, eating on average about 15 grams of fiber daily.

Reducing saturated fats in one's diet can also help the heart. Saturated fats are typically found in tropical oils (coconut) and animal products (dairy and meats). Heart-healthy fats are unsaturated fats found in foods such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and fish. To remember which ones are healthier just think of this: Saturated fats are solid at room temperature (and in your heart) and unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Keep in mind though that all fats are very high in calories and a little goes a long way.

Choose low-fat or non-fat dairy and lean cuts of meats to reduce saturated fats from those sources. And please don't swap your heart healthy olive oil for coconut oil. Coconut oil is higher in saturated fat than butter. Keep the coconut oil to a minimum, or just use it on your skin and hair for a heart-healthy alternative.

When it comes to salt and heart health, less is definitely more. Most Americans eat around 4,000 mg of salt (or sodium) daily. Health experts recommend reducing this to 1,500-2,500 mg daily for health benefits, such as lower blood pressure. Foods that are typically high in salt are those that are prepackaged and highly processed.

Think of frozen meals, convenience foods, bagged snack foods such a chips and cookies, even condiments. Intentionally choosing foods with a low-sodium label, or preparing foods at home can help reduce excessive amounts of sodium in your diet. A food with "low-sodium" on the packaging indicates that the food will have 140mg or less of sodium per serving.

Easy-to-find, low-sodium foods include breads, canned beans and soy sauce. If you are cooking at home you can use a variety of spices and herbs to create flavorful dishes without added salt.

Sign up for a heart-healthy nutrition class offered at Eisenhower Army Medical Center. Call the Nutrition Clinic at 706-787-2243 and ask to book an appointment for the heart-healthy class. We can help you meet your heart-healthy goals for 2019.