This time of year, hearts are abundant in every way, shape, and form. There are the classic heart-shaped candies, of course, but also cookies, cupcakes, and pizzas. Even breakfast gets in on the action with heart-shaped eggs and bacon! (See all the heart-shaped things here.) But it's rare we actually stop to think about our real heart — and I'm not talking about in the emotional sense.
Besides February revolving around Valentine's Day, it also happens to be American Heart Month, so there's no better time than now to focus on treating your heart right. The best way to prevent things like stroke and heart disease isn't complicated or hard — it's simply to eat a balanced diet. Here are five quick and easy ways to start eating better for your heart.
1. Cook with beans and legumes.
Whether you choose chickpeas, lentils, or black beans, beans and legumes are nutritional powerhouses. Canyon Ranch Medical Director Dr. Cynthia Geyer says "Beans and lentils can help satisfy hunger, decrease post-meal blood sugar swings, feed the beneficial bacteria in our digestive tracts, and reduce cholesterol." That's all thanks to high quantities of fiber, protein, and antioxidants.
2. Add an avocado.
While avocados are high in fat, the majority of these fats are good, heart-healthy unsaturated fats. A recent study even showed that when consumed as part of a healthy diet, they can actually help lower bad cholesterol. So dig into that avocado toast, throw a few slices into your smoothie, or even blend some into a chocolatey Valentine's Day dessert — and feel good about that second serving.
3. Be mindful of salt.
Studies have shown that too much salt in the diet is a major contributor to heart disease. While it's an important seasoning in your food, you can limit the amount you add when cooking by amping up other flavors, like garlic and freshly ground pepper. When making soup, Chef Hamlet Garcia of the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women movement recommends using a bouquet garni (a bundle of herbs, like parsley, thyme, and bay leaves).
4. Love your berries.
"The compounds that contribute to the deep pigmentation of blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, and blueberries can improve the elasticity of arteries, which in turn may benefit blood flow to the heart," says Dr. Geyer. Berries are also known as one of the best sources of antioxidants, which help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Tip: Strawberries and raspberries make a regular appearance around Valentine's Day, due to their red hue, but they aren't always the sweetest and juiciest at this time of year since they're out of season. Instead, reach for frozen, which are a great substitute.
5. Eat chocolate!
This is an easy one — especially since it's Valentine's Day. A little bit of dark chocolate (one to two ounces) may help lower blood pressure, and therefore contribute to a healthy heart. Dr. Geyer recommends looking for chocolate with at least 75 percent cocoa.
Read More: Five Ways to Eat: Dark Chocolate