Valentine's Day isn't the only reason to think about hearts during February. It's also American Heart Month.
To promote heart health, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a balanced diet without too much saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol (learn more about AHA's recommendations in next week's article).
But did you know you can add certain foods to your eating plan that may benefit your heart?
Check out the options below on your next shopping trip.
Feel Your Oats. Research shows that eating 3 grams of soluble fiber daily from oatmeal or a ready-to-eat whole-grain oat cereal as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. The soluble fiber in oats binds with and helps remove some of the cholesterol from the body, which may help lower total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Oat additions: Start your day with a bowl of old-fashioned or quick oatmeal (made from 1/2 cup dry oats) to get 2 grams of soluble fiber. Sprinkle oats into a yogurt and fruit parfait, add to meatloaf or filling for stuffed peppers, top a fruit crisp, or bake into muffins or breads.
More sources of soluble fiber: Barley, dried beans such as kidney, pinto and navy beans, split peas, lentils, carrots, apples, oranges and pears.
Change to Olive Oil. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat, which may help reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, and boost HDL (good) cholesterol.
How much may help: About two tablespoons of olive oil daily may reduce risk of heart disease, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The key is to use olive oil to replace a similar amount of cholesterol-raising saturated and trans fats in foods such as butter, stick margarine and shortening. Like other oils, olive oil contains 120 calories per tablespoon, so don't pour it on too freely if you're watching your weight.
More foods with monounsaturated fat: Canola oil, peanuts, almonds and avocados.
Get Hooked on Fish. The AHA recommends eating at least two servings of fish a week—especially oily fish, such as salmon, trout and herring. These fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which research suggests may help reduce risk of death from coronary artery disease.
Fish tips: A serving of fish is 3 ounces cooked, which is about the size of a checkbook or deck of cards. Keep your fish dish healthy by grilling, baking or poaching instead of frying or preparing in rich sauces.
More foods with omega-3s: The body best uses omega-3s from fish, but you'll also find a form that's less available to the body in canola oil, soybean oil, flaxseed and walnuts, and added to some products such as bread spreads, peanut butter, orange juice, cereal, yogurt, cheese, milk, and eggs from specially-fed chickens. Check labels to be sure.
Stalk the Produce Department. Fruits and vegetables are good for us in so many ways. Not only are they packed with vitamins and minerals, but the fiber they offer may reduce the risk of heart disease. Health experts recommend getting 2-1/2 cups of veggies and 2 cups of fruit a day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Plenty to pick from: Choose fresh, frozen, canned or dried fruits and veggies—whatever works for you. Slice a banana on your cereal, layer lettuce and tomato on your sandwich, carry raisins or baby carrots for a snack, microwave frozen spinach for dinner, or enjoy canned peaches for dessert.