Dietitians Dish: February is National Heart Month

February is national heart month. So, let's do something about it. Many factors play into your cardiovascular health, and nutrition is one of the few you can actually control. Don't think of following a heart-healthy diet as something you have to do, but something you get to do to improve your chances of having a longer and healthier life.

First, avoid as much salt as you can. The recommended intake of sodium is 2,300 mg a day, which is equal to about a teaspoon of salt. For those older than 65 years old with any cardiovascular disease, the recommendation is no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day.

Considering how much sodium is hidden in all of our canned, boxed and pre-packaged foods, it can be nearly impossible to stay under these recommendations unless you are cooking most of your meals yourself and focusing on lots of fresh produce, meats, grains and dairy.

It is also important to avoid seasoning with salt during cooking. Focus on spices and herbs that are all sodium free. Watch out for spice and herb blends, though, because they often contain hidden salt. Try to use salt just when you sit down for your meal. Take a bite of your food first because you may not even need extra salt with all of those great herbs and spices you cooked with. Also, be patient with your taste buds.

When you first start to cut down on your sodium intake, foods will taste bland. Fortunately, taste buds are adaptable and regenerate. Ever burn your tongue? Give it some time and after awhile, your taste will become accustomed to a low-sodium diet, and those foods you loved before will start tasting too salty.

A second step is to avoid as much animal fat as possible. The fat we get from animal products is high in the "bad" fat called saturated fat. Animal products are also our dietary source of cholesterol.

Did you know that we make enough cholesterol on our own to survive without having to eat any? Actually, all living beings produce their own cholesterol so whenever we eat additional amounts, it is truly unnecessary. The maximum intake of cholesterol for someone with cardiovascular disease is 200 mg per day. This may seem like a lot to some, but consider that one egg yolk has around 180 mg of cholesterol.

You can see how quickly one can exceed their cholesterol limit for a day if they are not careful. In order to avoid as much saturated fat and cholesterol as possible, choose low-fat and fat-free dairy products and watch that cheese. Though we love our cheese, it is important to make sure it is not part of our daily diet because of its high sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol content.

It is important to choose lean cuts of meat, usually loins and rounds, and trim as much visible fat as possible before cooking. Grilling is a great option for cooking meat because you can control the seasoning and fat can drip off of the meat while cooking.

There are many other diet changes you can make to improve your heart health such as eating more fruit, vegetables, whole grains and food sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

I encourage you to start with reduced salt and animal fat intake for the month of February and build on them. Before you know it, you will be eating for your heart and enjoying it.

Stephanie Markman is a registered and licensed dietitian at DeTar Healthcare Systems. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.