By Daria Zeoli, Guest Contributor

February is American Heart Month. This makes sense on some level – Valentine’s Day is at this time of year, and the heart is irrevocably associated with love. If we’re going to think about our hearts at all, it would be this month.

And we should be thinking about our hearts – the ones that allow us to care, to be compassionate, to love, sure – but just as importantly, the ones that are responsible for beating two and a half million times in the average lifespan.

Heart 101

Your heart is pretty amazing. It pumps blood through sixty thousand miles of vessels and supplies oxygen and nutrients to every cell in your body. And it does this without you having to think about it. You should be in love with your heart, because it’s awesome.

But here’s a scary fact: “cardiovascular disease —including heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure—is the cholesterol, and smoking.

Listening to Your Heart

I’ve talked before about my road to veganism. It started with health concerns. While I now see that veganism is for the animals, I understand and feel grateful that a healthy, plant-based diet can also be of benefit to the planet’s health and my own. The choice to be vegan feels right in my heart (the abstract, compassionate one) and for my heart (the concrete, amazing muscle that is responsible for keeping me walking and talking).

I am now more aware of what I put in my body, and that’s an important step on the road to wellness. I can’t say that I am excelling at only putting healthy, nutritious, fueling things in there, but I’m conscious of the changes I need to make. (I am also conscious of my addiction to salty snacks, and I struggle with it daily.)

A Heart-Healthy Diet

One of the best ways to be heart healthy is to limit your intake of unhealthy fats and cholesterol. Did you know that dietary cholesterol is only found in animal products? If you’re eating vegan, you’re already doing your heart good! But don’t forget, as we’ve previously covered in Do I Need to Worry About My Cholesterol Levels As a Vegan?, research has shown that your saturated and trans fat intakes have more effects on your body’s cholesterol production than previously believed. A diet rich in hydrogenated oils increases your risk of high cholesterol. So, fellow junk food vegans, will you take the challenge with me and put down the potato chips and cupcakes? Check out our Vegan Pantry Staples for a few foods to add to your arsenal.

The Heart and Modern Medicine

There are many anecdotal stories of heart patients adopting plant-based diets and eventually ceasing their need for medications. Please, don’t do this without discussing it with your doctor. If you have a history of heart disease or stroke, or have had heart surgery, your doctor might have you on statins. Don’t stop taking them, but be your own advocate and read up on them. As with any medication, it’s important that we understand the benefits, the side effects, and whether a dietary change might be of greater value to our health if at some point that option is good for us. Vegan or not, we all need to focus more on learning about our options so that we can make informed decisions about our health with our healthcare professionals.

American Heart Month gives us the needed reminder that if we are ever going to change the world for animals, we need to keep our hearts beating. As compassionate, ethical vegans, we’re already adept at listening to our hearts. Let’s not tune out to the practical ways we can stack our odds in favor of long, healthy lives!

heart-month-infographic

Infographic created by American Recall Center to help spread awareness about heart health during American Heart Month.