February is Heart Health Month, and a good reminder that eating the right foods can make a difference in heart health and longevity. My mom died from poor heart health. My goal is to help others choose a different path.

For years, heart disease was the No. 1 cause of mortality in the United States and it’s responsible for nearly a quarter of annual deaths — more than all types of cancer combined.

COVID-19 may have taken over that first-place spot — the numbers aren’t all in yet — but the point is, we need to be concerned about the health of our hearts.

There are several heart-healthy diets (Mediterranean; DASH; vegetarian; MIND). Here’s what they have in common:

» High in vegetables

» High in traditionally healthy fats such as fish, nuts, seeds, olives and avocado

» High in plant-based protein sources such as legumes and soy

» High in aquatic protein sources such as fish and seafood

You can’t go wrong with foods and snacks that are nutrient-dense, such as dark leafy greens — which have fiber, micronutrients and phytochemicals — and nuts, fruits (especially berries) and vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, avocados, salmon and walnuts.

In his book, The 5-Ingredient Heart Healthy Cookbook, registered dietitian Andy De Santis offers six guidelines for eating in a heart-healthy way.

1. Lead with legumes. They help keep blood cholesterol levels down. Legumes are beans, peas and lentils.

2. Push potassium. It helps lower blood pressure, which when high, can be a major risk factor for heart disease. High amounts of sodium can raise blood pressure; high amounts of potassium can help restore the balance. Potassium is found in bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, salmon and avocado.

3. Stick with soy if you enjoy it. Products include soy milk, tofu, soybean oil, edamame and soy nuts.

4. Go nuts for tree nuts. Tree nuts are high in fiber, potassium and heart-healthy fats. Tree nuts include almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts.

5. Choose vegetables and fruits, fresh or frozen. Fruits and vegetables are fundamental components of a heart-healthy diet. Eating any and all fruits and vegetables is strongly associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, according to a 2017 paper in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

6. Choose omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to have anti-inflammatory capabilities and to lower blood triglyceride levels. A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that omega-3 intake did indeed reduce heart disease risk. Good sources include flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, tofu, salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines.


Q: Is it a good idea to have a snack?

A: Snacking can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on what you choose for a snack. Advertising will tell you that organic and plant-based foods and products without additives are good choices, but organic potato chips, rice crackers and even some cookies and candy bars meet all three of those criteria, and they’re not necessarily good choices.

For a healthy snack, choose fruits, low-fat plain yogurt, veggies and nuts or seeds. Snacking is an opportunity to add nutrients like calcium or vitamin C that you may be short on.

Beware of front-of-the-package claims — it’s better to read the label on the back.

Here are a few healthy snacks to try: almonds, fruit, unsweetened yogurt (add your own fruit), hummus and fresh veggies, a tuna snack pack, light string cheese, and air-popped popcorn.

Parmesan Chicken and Brussels Sprouts

I’m all for making dinner easy, especially when it can be healthy as well. Here’s a recipe that accomplishes both: Parmesan chicken and Brussels sprouts, from EatingWell magazine.

By the way, Brussels sprouts were named after the Belgian city where they were first known to be cultivated during the 13th century: Brussels. It took nearly six centuries for them to make their way across the Atlantic.


» ⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese

» 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

» 3 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs, preferably whole wheat

» 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest plus 1 lemon, cut into wedges, divided

» ½ teaspoon dried thyme

» ⅛ teaspoon salt plus ½ teaspoon, divided

» 1½ pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

» 3 cloves garlic, smashed

» 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts


Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Stir Parmesan, 1 tablespoon oil, panko, lemon zest, thyme, ⅛ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a small bowl.

Toss Brussels sprouts and garlic with 2 tablespoons oil and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Spread out evenly. Add chicken and lemon wedges to the pan.

Brush both sides of the chicken with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Top the chicken with the Parmesan mixture, gently pressing to adhere.

Roast, turning the pan from front to back and stirring the sprouts halfway, until a thermometer in the chicken reaches 165 degrees and the sprouts are browned, about 18 minutes.

Serve with the lemon wedges, if desired.


Serves 4 (3 ounces chicken and 1 cup sprouts)

Per serving: 361 calories; 26 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrate; 23 grams fat (5 grams saturated); 110 milligrams cholesterol; 5 grams fiber; 3 grams total sugars (0 grams added); 605 milligrams sodium

— Charlyn Fargo Ware is a registered dietitian with SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, Illinois. Contact her at charfarg@aol.com, or follow her on Twitter: @NutritionRd, or click here for additional columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

Charlyn Fargo Ware is a registered dietitian with SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, Illinois, and the current president of the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Contact her at charfarg@aol.com, and follow her on Twitter: @NutritionRd. The opinions expressed are her own.