Many of us associate the month of February with love and Valentine’s Day, but it is also a good time to think about how to keep your heart healthy. During American Heart Month, start by setting small, realistic goals for yourself, and work toward improving your heart health and preventing heart disease.
As a dietitian at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla., I ask my patients why it’s important to them to keep their hearts healthy. Some common responses include: “To be around longer for the ones I love,” “to feel healthier,” and “to prevent heart disease.” These are all great reasons to focus on making some changes to improve your heart health.
One solution is to include more soluble fiber into your diet. You might ask, “What does that mean? I have heard of fiber, but what is soluble fiber?”
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Both are important to include in your diet, but we are going to focus on soluble fiber for heart health benefits. (For more information on the differences in the types of fiber, check out the Types of Fiber handout.)
Soluble fiber absorbs water and turns into a gel during digestion, slowing down digestion. This type of fiber binds to cholesterol in the digestive tract to help carry cholesterol out of the body and lower your total and LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels. With lower cholesterol levels, your risk of heart disease is reduced. Soluble fiber is found in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, fruits and vegetables.
For a quick and easy way to add more soluble fiber into your diet, try oatmeal for breakfast. February is also “Hot Breakfast Month.” So, with the chill in the air, I cannot think of a better way to start your morning. Oatmeal is a quick, easy and inexpensive breakfast item that can be personalized to your taste by adding the toppings you enjoy. Some ideas include nuts, dried fruit, peanut butter, jam or fresh fruit slices … and some of these help to add even more soluble fiber.
Oatmeal comes in several different forms. I think we’re all familiar with the pre-packaged instant oatmeal. While this will get fiber into your diet, it’s often overloaded with sugar and artificial flavorings. You can buy quick oats in bulk, add your own flavors and toppings, and still retain the quick-cooking properties. Oats also come in the “old-fashioned” or rolled variety – where the oat grain is rolled, but still thick. These take slightly longer to cook. Finally, you’ll find steel-cut oats. These are where the grain is cut up instead of rolled, and generally take about 20 minutes or longer to cook.
Try this recipe for overnight oats from the Yummy Benefits VA Healthy Teaching Kitchen Cookbook, and have a hearty breakfast ready to go when you wake up. Customize the recipe to your liking by changing the toppings to your favorites.
If you have questions or are interested in finding more ways to improve your heart health, contact your VA to meet with a registered dietitian. You can also see about joining your VA’s MOVE or TeleMOVE weight management program, or see if your VA has a Healthy Teaching Kitchen.
Chelsea Skillman is a registered dietitian at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla. She works with the outpatient primary care clinics and spinal cord injury patients, while also helping with the MOVE! Weight Management Program. She was born and raised in Florida, and has a passion for cooking and, like many Florida residents, having fun in the sun.