5 Best Foods for Heart Health

By: Beth Carson

It's not quite Valentine's Day yet, but it is the time of year for flowers, candy and hearts. And we're not just talking about the chocolate variety. February is also American Heart Month, and this Friday, February 7 is the American Heart Association's (AHA) National Wear Red Day, celebrated over the past 10 years to bring continued awareness to what is still the #1 killer of women today -- heart disease.

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Once thought to be an "old man's disease," this silent killer is to blame for the deaths of almost 1,100 women a day. That's nearly one per minute, taking the lives of more women than all forms of cancer combined. Heart disease doesn't discriminate based on age or race either, affecting women as early as their 20s and across ethnicities.

The good news, though, is that cardiovascular disease is preventable. And one of the easiest ways to guard your heart is by loading up on whole, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. According to the AHA, "vegetables and fruits are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber -- and they're low in calories. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables may help you control your weight and blood pressure" -- two of the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

In honor of American Heart Month and National Wear Red Day, be your own Valentine by trading out that box of high-calorie candy for these five red heart-healthy foods. They're loaded with antioxidants, potassium and fiber to help fight damage from free radicals (the by-product of foods and environmental pollutants), control blood pressure and keep your heart pumping strong. And enjoy a quick recipe from National Wear Red Day:

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Strawberries. Strawberries are great for reducing inflammation and lowering the "bad" LDL cholesterol that can cause damage to arteries. They're also full of free-radical reducing antioxidants like vitamin C. Try it: Mix up a Ravin' Red Smoothie. Blend 1 cup of low-fat yogurt with ½ cup frozen strawberries, ½ cup frozen raspberries, one frozen banana and enjoy. Even easier? Drizzle melted dark chocolate over whole strawberries.

Tomatoes. The tomato gets its rich red color from lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that could potentially stave off heart disease and a slew of cancers. The potassium in tomatoes also helps to lower blood pressure. Try it: Enjoy a plate of Red Pasta. Cook whole-wheat spaghetti, then top with low-sodium marinara sauce, diced tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes.

Red bell peppers. This versatile veggie boasts a number of heart-healthy benefits. It contains capsaicin, flavonoids and vitamin C - nutrients that can prevent blood clot formation, reduce cholesterol and lower your risk for heart attacks and strokes. Try it: Add these Stuffed Bell Peppers to the menu tonight. For one red bell pepper (cored and seeds removed), stuff with ½ cup browned ground turkey, 1 tbsp. parsley, salt and pepper. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until pepper is heated through.

Red apples. Just one apple a day, as the old adage suggests, keeps the doctor away. This year-round fruit provides your heart with disease-fighting soluble fiber as well as antioxidants like vitamin C. Studies have also shown that in addition to preventing heart disease, diets that include apples can also stave off cancer, asthma, and type 2 diabetes. Try it: Heat up your oven for quick and delicious Baked Red Apples. Simply fill one whole red apple (cored) with ¼ cup chopped almonds, ¼ cup dried cranberries, 1 tsp. honey and 1 tsp. brown sugar. Bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees or until sugar bubbles.

Red cabbage. In addition to keeping your cholesterol levels low, this perennial vegetable protects against both heart disease and cancer with anthocyanins (which give the cabbage it's red color) as well the antioxidant vitamin C. Try it: Enjoy Roasted Red Cabbage Salad for a tasty side dish. In a large bowl, simply combine 2 cups chopped red cabbage (roasted), ½ cup thinly sliced red onion, ¼ cup red wine vinegar, 1 tbsp. olive oil and sea salt.

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