American Heart Month & Boosting Cardiovascular Health

By Laura Ritacco, RDN – Gleaners Nutrition Education Team

Disclaimer: The following content is for informational and educational purposes only and should not substitute the advice of your medical professional. Always consult your physician or other qualified healthcare provider for individual medical care.

The month of February abounds with images of hearts. But hearts are not just for Valentine’s Day, they also represent the start of American Heart Month and the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Go Red for Women initiative. Both initiatives are dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of cardiovascular health, especially when it comes to women’s unique risk factors for cardiovascular diseases1.

The term cardiovascular health may sound familiar, but what exactly does it mean and how is it affected? Cardiovascular health refers to the well-being of the cardiovascular system, which is comprised of the heart and blood vessels. These components work together to keep us alive and help to remove waste from the body2. Talk about a significant role!

However, the cardiovascular system can be prone to diseases. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the umbrella term used for all types of diseases that affect the heart or blood vessels. One specific type of disease included in CVD is coronary artery disease, commonly known as “clogged arteries”, which can cause major health problems such as stroke and heart attacks3. What are some reasons for disease development? Aging and family history are risk factors that cannot be changed. Life changes for women, such as menopause and pregnancy, can put them at higher risk for developing CVD1,4. However, there are certain lifestyle factors, such as nutrition and physical activity, that can be modified to promote health and reduce the risk of CVD.

Explore the steps and tips below to boost your cardiovascular health!

Choose foods that contain fiber and antioxidants.

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based proteins are all loaded with fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar. They are rich in important vitamins and minerals, such as potassium and magnesium, which have been shown to help lower blood pressure5. They also contain antioxidants, which fight inflammation.

How to:

  • Add a variety of colors to your plate with fruits and vegetables. Add more of your favorite vegetables to a recipe than it suggests.
    • Prioritize making at least half of your grains whole. Look for ingredients such as whole wheat, corn, brown rice, barley, bulgur. Whole grains should be the first ingredient listed in a food product that contains grains.
    • Choose plant-based protein sources more often such as beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Select fats that nourish our heart and blood vessels.

Fats provided by our diet support many important functions in the body, from providing energy to producing hormones. Certain fats can contribute to an increased risk of CVD, while others can help lower the risk.

Choose less often:

  • Trans fats: known to raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol levels in our blood.
    These are found in highly processed, shelf stable products such as cookies and other packaged snacks. Tip: To detect if a food contains trans fats, check the ingredients list on the package for the words: hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oils.
    • Saturated fats: can contribute to higher levels of “bad” cholesterol.
      These are primarily found in foods such as tropical oils, fatty cuts of meat (beef, pork, chicken with the skin), butter, and other full-fat dairy products.

Choose more often:

  • Unsaturated fats: beneficial for health because they raise “good” cholesterol and lower “bad” cholesterol. Foods with unsaturated fats fight inflammation.
    • Tip: Incorporate more of these foods into your meals and food prep: olive oil, canola oil, sesame oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, and fatty fish (salmon, sardines, cod).
    • Note: if you are a woman of childbearing age and are pregnant or breastfeeding, be sure to consult USDA’s Advice about Eating Fish | FDA for mercury levels found in commonly eaten fish.

Limit added sugars.

Added sugars contribute to “empty calories”—they provide many calories with little nutritional value.

  • Tip: Added sugars hide under different names on food packaging.
    Check the ingredients list to identify if your food contains any of these added sugars: maltose, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, syrup, honey, brown rice syrup.

Reduce sodium intake.

Sodium is an important mineral for our bodies to function; however, eating too much can contribute to high blood pressure (hypertension), which is one of the major risk factors for heart disease.

  • Highly processed foods are typically high in sodium. Choose these types of foods less often: baked goods, cured meats, frozen meals, snack foods, and condiments (like hot sauce).
    • Tip: Choose “No Salt Added” or “Low Sodium” when available for products such as canned vegetables and beans.
      For a low sodium snack, try plain popcorn and add your own toppings of herbs, spices, and a splash of olive oil.

Opt for healthier cooking methods when at home or dining out.

  • Baking, grilling, broiling, steaming, roasting, sautéing, and stir frying can be heart-healthy methods—especially when prepared with unsaturated fats (olive oil, canola oil).
    • Tip: Look for the same cooking preparation terms on menus when dining out to help you stay on track!

Engage in regular physical activity.

In addition to a healthy eating style, regular physical activity can protect cardiovascular health by reducing disease progression of high blood pressure and aiding in weight management.

  • The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, which equals about 20-25 minutes per day6.
    • Tip: Start slow and find movement you enjoy! Taking a brisk walk with a friend or family member or dancing to your favorite songs while cooking are two great ways to move your body.
  • Be sure to check with your medical provider to determine which type of physical activity may be best for you.

Overall, practicing a healthy eating style and engaging in physical activity are two great steps toward promoting a healthy heart. Starting small by incorporating at least one of the tips above can have long-term, beneficial effects on not just your cardiovascular health, but overall health. Show your heart lots of love this month and for many months to come!


  1. CDC: Women and Heart Disease | Accessed 1/25/24.
  2. Cleveland Clinic: Circulatory System: Anatomy and Function ( Accessed 1/25/24.
  3. Mayo Clinic: Heart disease – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic. Accessed 1/31/24.
  4. American Heart Association Go Red for Women: Go Red for Women | The American Heart Association’s signature women’s initiative. Accessed 2/1/24.
  5. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Heart Health for Women ( Accessed 1/25/24.
  6. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: Top 10 Things to Know About the Second Edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans | Accessed 1/25/24.