Let’s make this Valentine’s Day the start of giving your own heart some love to stay healthy and fit. This is the time of year when we focus on the heart and romance, but ironically Valentine’s Day is mostly associated with candy and sugar, which are both inflammatory and not heart healthy. Many factors contribute to a healthy heart, such as following a heart healthy diet, enjoying regular exercise and taking supplements that support cardiovascular health.

Heart attacks are a leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. A heart attack results from a blockage in the flow of blood to the heart, causing heart cells to die. There are many causes, such as smoking, inactivity and a diet high in calories, sodium and saturated fats.

Many of us are at least vaguely familiar with the foods that contribute to heart disease such as saturated fats, high sodium and processed and artificial foods. But what foods should we eat to support heart health? While the benefits of exercise are well documented, the amount of exercise needed for those benefits to take effect is still disputed. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise on most days of the week. You also need to eat only the amount of calories that your body needs. To roughly figure out the amount of calories you require for weight maintenance multiply your current weight by 10 if you are a woman and by 11 if you are a man. The basic metabolic rate of a 130 lbs woman would be 1,300 calories. The more activity you do, the more calories you have to consume to stay energy neutral i.e. consuming as many calories as you burn.

Let’s take a look at some heart healthy foods and activities that you should incorporate into your lifestyle to keep your heart strong and healthy.

Eat more fruits and vegetables

Vegetables and fruits are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals and they are low in calories and high in dietary fiber. Vegetables and fruits contain substances found in plants that may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Eating more fruits and vegetables may also help you eat less high-fat foods, such as meat, cheese and processed snack foods. Include berries in your breakfast, as they are rich in antioxidants and vitamins. Including more vegetables in your diet can be easy. Keep washed and cut veggies in your refrigerator for quick snacks. Choose recipes that have vegetables as the main ingredient, such as vegetable stir-fry or fresh veggies mixed into salads.

Select whole grains

Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that play a role in regulating blood pressure and heart health. You can increase the amount of whole grains in a heart-healthy diet by making simple substitutions for refined grain products. Try a new whole grain, such as whole-grain couscous, quinoa or barley for variety. Another easy way to add whole grains to your diet is ground flax-seed. Flax-seeds are high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower your total blood cholesterol. You can grind the seeds in a coffee grinder or food processor and stir a teaspoon of them into yogurt, smoothie or morning oatmeal.

Limit unhealthy fats and cholesterol

Limiting how much saturated and trans fats you eat are an important step to reduce your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of coronary artery disease. A high blood cholesterol level can lead to a buildup of plaque in your arteries, called atherosclerosis, which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

The best way to reduce saturated and a trans fat in your diet is to limit the amount of solid fats — butter, margarine and shortening — you add to food when cooking and serving. You can also reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet by trimming fat off your meat or choosing lean meats. Personally, I do not consume any red meat, ever.

Another way to reduce your fat consumption is by making substitutions. For example, top your baked potato with organic cottage cheese or low-fat Greek yogurt instead of butter, or use natural low-sugar nut butter on your whole grain toast instead of margarine.

Always check the food labels of processed foods such as cookies, crackers and chips. Many of these snacks — even those labeled “reduced fat” — may be made with oils containing trans fats. One clue that a food has some trans fat in it is the phrase “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. When you do use fats, choose monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, canola oil or my personal favorite; coconut oil. Polyunsaturated fats, found in nuts and seeds, also are good choices for a heart-healthy diet. When used in place of saturated fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may help lower your total blood cholesterol. But moderation is essential, as all types of fat are high in calories. Omega 3 fats are easy to supplement in pill form and have proven cardiovascular benefits.

In addition, as you make daily food choices, base your eating pattern on these recommendations:

  1. Choose lean meats and poultry without skin and prepare them without added saturated and trans fat.Eat fish for most of your main meals. Recent research shows that eating oily fish containing omega-3 fatty acids (for example, salmon, trout and herring) may help lower your risk of death from coronary artery disease.
  2. Select fat-free, 1 percent fat and low-fat, organic dairy products.
  3. Cut back on foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils to reduce trans fat in your diet.
  4. To lower cholesterol, reduce saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that’s about 13 grams of saturated fat. Chose healthy saturated fats such as coconut oil.
  5. Cut back on beverages and foods with added sugars.
  6. Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt. To lower blood pressure, aim to eat no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day. In fact, I tell my clients to reduce daily sodium intake to 1,500 mg, because it can lower blood pressure even further.
  7. If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation. That means one drink per day if you’re a woman and two drinks per day if you’re a man. I recommend red wine for its health boost and stay completely away from hard liquor, as it has no health benefit whatsoever.


What can we do to strengthen our hearts with exercise? The heart is a muscle and as such needs to be worked out. Like all muscles, the heart becomes stronger as you exercise. A stronger heart can pump more blood through the body with every beat and continue working at maximum level, if needed, with less strain. Also, the resting heart rate of those who exercise is lower, because less effort is needed to pump blood. As I already mentioned, the A.H.A. recommends 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days. Moderate activity is defined as exercising at a capacity of 50%-85% of your maximum heart rate.

Keep it coming

People who maintain an active lifestyle have a 45% lower risk of developing heart disease than do sedentary people. Experts have been attempting to define the quantity of exercise needed to produce heart benefits. Beneficial changes in cholesterol and lipid levels, including lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol) levels, occur even when people performed low amounts of moderate- or high intensity exercise, such as walking or jogging. Benefits occur even with very modest weight loss, suggesting that overweight people who have trouble losing pounds can still achieve considerable heart benefits by exercising. Some studies suggest that for the greatest heart protection, it is not the duration of a single exercise session that counts but the total weekly amount of energy expended.

Hit the steel

Resistance (weight) training has also been associated with heart protection. It may offer a complementary benefit to aerobics. If you have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease, check with your doctor before starting resistance training or any other exercise program.

Keep exercise safe

For people with heart disease, strenuous exercise can set a heart attack in motion, especially in men—particularly in those who exercise sporadically. Studies have found that vigorous exertion can increase the risk of heart attack anywhere from six to 100 times. However, the benefits of exercise in combating heart disease far outweigh the risk of heart attack. The type of exercise is relatively unimportant, as long as it’s enjoyable and easy to maintain. It is a known fact that you are more likely to participate in activities that you enjoy, so make your exercise sessions fun and safe.

Your heart is in your own hands. Protect it for yourself and your loved ones and enjoy a healthy, fun and active lifestyle.

Unni Greene
C.S.N.S, C.M.T