February is Heart Health Month, and there’s no better time to do a “gut check” on the foods you and your loved ones are eating. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Canada states that strokes kill 32% more women than men.

Needless to say, it pays to be aware of what you can do at home to promote a heart-healthy diet for your family. The good news is, our cardiovascular health is largely under our control. Eating a diet rich in fruits, veggies, lean protein and fiber can considerably reduce the risk of heart disease.

Heart Healthy Shopping Tips for Seniors

Eating better is one of the Heart Association’s “Simple 7″ factors for improved heart health. When you maintain a healthy diet along with regular physical exercise and other good habits, you’ll not only feel better, but you’ll live longer — and of course we want our senior loved ones to stay healthy and vital for as long as possible, too. Here are some tips on what to eat, what not to eat, and how to succeed when the going gets tough.

1. Buy colorful fruits and vegetables.

Low in calories, high in vitamins, minerals and fiber — adults should get at least five servings per day of these nutrition powerhouses.

A Place for Mom senior nutrition expert Heather Schwartz recommends, “When getting ready to head to the check-out line, check the basket to make sure you have a variety of colored fruits and vegetables to ensure you get the rainbow of benefits each color has to offer. Colors indicate a concentration of a specific nutrient; for example, tomatoes are dense in lutein, which is great for your heart and eyes.”

2. Avoid buying high fat dairy or meat.

Look for skinless cuts of lean meat with the least amount of visible fat. Cuts that say “loin” after them, like sirloin and tenderloin, are often leaner cuts. Ground meats should have less than 20% fat, whether it’s chicken, turkey, pork or beef. Yogurt, milk, cheese and other dairy products should also be low in fat — 2% “reduced fat” or less.

The one kind of fat you do want your loved ones to get plenty of is fatty fish: two servings a week of salmon, trout, or other oily fish can help lower the risk of heart disease and increase the body’s level of healthy omega-3s.

3. Buy plenty of nuts and high fiber foods.

Fiber can help lower blood cholesterol, and it keeps you full, which helps you maintain a healthy weight. You can find fiber in fruits, veggies, beans and whole-grain breads and cereals, as well as in nuts. Almonds and walnuts also have plenty of other valuable nutrients and have been shown in recent studies to have a significant impact on heart health.

A study at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine found that Seventh Day Adventist patients who ate nuts at least five times per week cut their risk of heart disease in half.

4. Avoid buying butter.

We all know these are the culprits of poor dietary health, but this is particularly important advice for seniors. Avoiding these three can help lower cholesterol. A few easy tips to remember: try to eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day, avoid foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and follow the tips above for consuming lean protein and dairy.

Also, Heather Schwartz says, “Consider replacing butter with a more healthful spread like Smart Balance, Brummel and Brown, Benechol or Promise. Unlike butter, they have healthy fats in them and contain plant sterols which may help lower bad cholesterol.”

5. Read nutrition labels.

Replacing sugary drinks like soda or fruit juice with herbal teas is a great way to eliminate some sugar from your diet, but what about sodium? It’s easy for salt to sneak in, especially with prepared foods, so be sure to read the nutrition label.

“Most seniors need around 500 mg of sodium per meal, or 1500 mg per day,” says Heather Schwartz. “A general rule of thumb is that if one serving of any particular item has more than 250 mg of sodium, you may want to search for a product that has less.” Research published in “Agricultural Economics” suggests that people who read nutrition labels tend to be slimmer than those who don’t.

6. Consider frozen or canned fruits and veggies.

Making sure the kitchen is well-stocked with healthy items — and low on tempting junk food — will help your loved ones get the right nutrition.

“Remember that frozen fruits and vegetables have the same vitamins and minerals in them, though their prices may be radically different,” suggests Heather. “This knowledge makes keeping the kitchen stocked with cholesterol and blood pressure lowering foods a little easier. Canned fruits and veggies offer similar benefits, though choose unsalted or unsweetened varieties when possible.”

7. Avoid rushing into major changes.

Eating for heart health can seem overwhelming, but don’t get discouraged. Start with small steps, and soon the whole family will be eating better — these dietary guidelines are great for everyone, not just seniors.

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