(Health.com) -- Nothing quite expresses love and joy like gifts of food -- especially for those loved ones on your list who may be at higher risk for heart disease.
Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death among men and women in America -- more than cancer, accidents, and diabetes combined. You can't help some risk factors, such as age, gender, and genetics.
But quitting smoking and getting more exercise can reduce your chances of having a heart attack or stroke.
So can eating a heart-healthy diet. Here are 15 gifts that will help the people on your gift list tempt their taste buds and reduce their risk of heart disease.
If your loved ones have busy schedules or complain about the bland taste of healthy food, a new cookbook from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute may be just the gift. Keep the Beat Recipes: Deliciously Healthy Dinners features updated flavors adapted for a more modern palate -- including Mediterranean, Latin, and Asian-inspired dishes. Since each recipe is already low in saturated fat and sodium, "It takes the guesswork out of healthy cooking," says Janet de Jesus, a nutrition education expert with the institute.
"Changing life-long habits and a mindset that healthy food has to be tasteless can be challenging for people who need to cook more with their heart in mind," she says. At only $5, the cookbook is an inexpensive way to give heart health this holiday -- plus it's designed for both novice cooks and seasoned veterans.
Each meal can be prepared in less than an hour, and the book includes grocery lists and time-saving tips to help you set up a no-fail game plan for the week.
For families on your list, consider the American Heart Association Healthy Family Meals: 150 Recipes Everyone Will Love ($23).
"Nutritious food patterns established early will stick with children for the long-term," says AHA spokeswoman Dr. Alice Lichtenstein.
The cookbook features quick weeknight dinners and plan-ahead menus designed to encourage the whole family to eat healthier. The recipes include simplified preparation steps that make it easy to involve a young sous-chef, as well as plenty of substitution ideas to customize meals to a family's tastes.
Healthy kitchen gadgets
Shopping for more of a gadget-lover versus a bookworm? There are plenty of nifty kitchen doodads that will make cutting fat and cholesterol a breeze.
Help your family prepare more heart-friendly meals with a steam-basket for the stovetop or microwaveable steamer. Steaming veggies retains more vitamins than boiling since fewer nutrients are able to leach out into the water. Try the OXO steamer ($23) with a heat-resistant handle, or the Microsteamer by Tupperware ($29.50), which also works well for fish or chicken.
Grilling is another quick, low-fat way to cook. For everyday use, try a grill pan or counter-top grill. These allow excess fat to drain from meat while adding great flavor to a variety of foods, from turkey burgers to veggie kabobs.
Do you have a relative who loves cheese but needs to shy away from saturated fat? They can still enjoy their favorite fromage with microplane graters such as the Microplane Gourmet Paddle Graters from William-Sonoma. The super-sharp edges create tiny, feathery strands of cheese to make it spread further. Throw in a wedge of a pungent variety of cheese like Parmesan, which has a strong flavor so you need less.
To keep foods from sticking with a minimum of fat, try an oil mister. You can avoid the alcohol taste of commercial cooking sprays, and even add garlic, spices, or fresh herbs to create your own custom flavor infusions. These also work great for spritzing on salads or fresh-steamed vegetables.
For another heart-warming gift idea, senior food editor for Health magazine Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, suggests an electric teakettle.
"It's a fabulous gift because you have hot water in just seconds. It's also perfect for making antioxidant-packed tea and cholesterol-zapping oatmeal."
Gifts of food
If that special someone on your list is trying to eat healthier but has a hard time avoiding fattening foods at the office, consider buying them a top of the line lunch bag, Largeman-Roth says.
"Something bright and well-designed to carry a homemade lunch in like the lunch totes from Built NY. I'm a big fan of their new lunch purse."
Bringing nutritious meals from home "...keeps your heart and your wallet healthy," she says.
Want to give food? Instead of a membership to the Bacon of the Month Club or a gift baskets bulging with gourmet chocolates, send a frozen tuna or wild Alaskan salmon fillet care package. Both fish are full of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to protect the heart by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, and eating the AHA-recommended 2 servings a week of omega-3 rich fish has also been shown to reduce the risk of stroke by as much as 50 percent.
Know someone with a sweet tooth? Instead of sugary candy or fat-laden sweets, try giving personalized jars of homemade, spiced nuts. They're low in sodium and full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and magnesium, which help regulate blood pressure.
If you like to give baked goods, instead of traditional cookies or fruitcake, branch out with whole-grain breads studded with your favorite combo of nuts, seeds, and/or dried fruits. Oatmeal muffins are perfect to munch on while opening presents Christmas morning or as a satisfying snack. Or, try a whole-wheat loaf full of fiber and omega-3-rich walnuts, which both help reduce cholesterol. Plus, you (and your family) will love the mouth-watering aroma of fresh-baked bread during the holidays.
Another sweet idea: sign them up for a Fruit of the Month Club membership, like the one from Harry & David. Fruit is an excellent source of both soluble fiber (which has been shown to lower bad cholesterol) and antioxidants (which help prevent damage to arteries).
And don't forget to include vitamin C-rich citrus fruits. "The gift of fresh citrus is always welcome around the holidays," Largeman-Roth says. Help your family keep cholesterol levels in check and fight off winter colds with juicy oranges, grapefruits, and Honeybell tangelos. Davidson Bros is a great company to order from."
You can even give a gift that keeps on giving -- a Meyer lemon tree.
"Not only is it beautiful, but it also produces this deliciously sweet lemon, which is terrific for flavoring everything from fiber-full muffins to whole-wheat pasta dishes," Largeman-Roth says.
As an added bonus, planting and tending a tree provides some heart-strengthening exercise and stress-relief in the great outdoors.
Copyright Health Magazine 2011