It's February, and love is in the air! Stores are stocked with heart-shaped gifts of all varieties, from chocolates to diamonds. February also means it's American Heart Month, and the most important heart by far is the one beating in our chests. Given that heart disease is America's number one killer of adult men and women, it's clear that the human heart deserves a little more love and attention.
It's important, however, not to be disheartened by the high prevalence of heart disease. Fortunately, there are small changes that can make a big difference in reducing the risk of heart attacks, stroke and high blood pressure. The American Heart Association declares that we can eat our way to better heart health by reducing the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in our diets. It also recommends maintaining a healthy weight. One of the best ways to meet their recommendations is to eat more plant-based foods and less meat.
Meat and other animal-derived foods tend to be high in saturated fat and cholesterol. The AHA promotes "going meatless at a meal every now and then" to help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk for cardiovascular diseases. "Most of the cholesterol-raising saturated fat Americans eat comes from meat and full-fat dairy products such as whole milk cheese," said Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., a member of the American Heart Association's Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health.
Eating less meat encourages the consumption of more plant-based foods, including protein-packed beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And because diets high in meat consumption can be associated with obesity, eating less meat is beneficial not only for heart health, but can help us look and feel great and can help lower the risk for other chronic, preventable diseases.
Eating more meat-free foods is catching fire among Americans. According to a Mintel study, 113 million of us report regularly choosing meatless meals. For example, many are participating in Meatless Monday.
For those looking to make a dietary change of heart, meatless options are abundant. Try meatless must-haves like protein-packed spicy bean burritos, savory vegetable curries and hearty chilies. Moreover, as noted by the AHA, eating less meat can be easier on the wallet. Plant-based proteins like beans are some of the most cost-effective sources of protein available.
And you don't have to miss a beat when dining out. Popular restaurant chains like Chipotle offer hearty options such as sofritas to fill burritos. Many food restaurants offer meat-free burgers and patties, including Subway, Burger King and now White Castle. Thai, Indian, Latin and other international cuisines provide a great opportunity to try tasty meat-free meals.
In addition to saving human lives, reducing meat consumption can help spare the lives of billions of animals on factory farms. This is why The Humane Society of the United States, which advocates for a more humane diet, embraces the three Rs of eating: "reducing" or "replacing" consumption of animal products and "refining" our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards.
So this February go ahead - eat your heart out to better health by enjoying more plant-based foods! Your heart will love you for it.
Krystil Smith is a Food Policy Manager for The Humane Society of the United States. Her favorite Meatless Monday meal is Lemony Linguini, a creamy, citrus-infused pasta dish.