Heart Health

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Simple Steps to Start Your Way Toward a Heart-Healthy Diet

Your father, grandmother, and aunt may have heart disease, but even with a strong genetic predisposition you can cut your risks dramatically by pursuing a heart healthy lifestyle – and it’s easier than you think. 

Over 800,000 Americans died from heart attacks and other cardiac related-illnesses last year, but most of those deaths – four out of five – were preventable.  Sometimes the headlines can be confusing: Chocolate is bad for your heart.  No, it’s good.  Wine is unhealthy.  Wait, it’s healthy.  Pack your plate with protein to lose weight.  No…

With all of these mixed messages about food in the media, it’s not surprising that many people will just give up trying to figure out what they should eat.  If you’re confused, you’re not alone.  (and one of the reasons why I started this blog, to clear up the confusion).

Forget the confusing headlines – the best way to eat heart healthy is to follow national guidelines from organizations like the American Heart Association.  These guidelines are established by experts who monitor research and are not focused on the latest fad or trend.

Here are a few tips to help you build a healthy heart that will last a lifetime.

Control Your Portion Size – How much you eat is just as important as what you eat.  Overloading your plate, taking seconds and eating until you feel stuffed can lead to eating more calories, fat and cholesterol than you should.  Portions in restaurants are often more than anyone needs.  Keep track of the number of servings you eat – and use proper serving sizes – to help control your portions.  If you need to, measure your food until you get used to what a proper serving size looks like.  We are a nation of portion distortion and once you see what a portion really is you might be surprised.  Eating more of low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods, and less of high-calorie, high-sodium foods, can shape up your diet as well as your heart and waistline.

Eat more fruit and vegetables.  My brother challenged himself to eat 100 different fruits and vegetables this year.  When I heard he was doing this, I decided I’d try to do it for myself.  While I’m probably nowhere close to how many different ones he’s eaten, I am well on my way to getting to 100.  People tend to start eating the same foods over and over.  My daily fruits and vegetables that I typically eat are a banana, strawberries, orange, cantaloupe, papaya, pear, apple, spinach, tomato, avocado, and mixed greens.  Since this challenge some of my daily fruits have been pomegranate, blackberries, persimmon, pomelo, grapefruit, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, butternut squash and arugula.  When I teach the kids and tell them the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables the number one thing I hear is, “I don’t like them”.  I call their bluff.  There are too many fruits and vegetables out there for them to tell me they don’t like them.  I challenge them to try new ones and focus on the ones that they do love.  They’re bound to find some that they like.  Fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.  Not to mention that they are also low in calories and rich in dietary fiber.  Make sure you’re eating your fruits and vegetables and not just trying to get them in a pill form. 

Select Whole Grains – Whole grains are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that play a role in regulating blood pressure and heart health.  Increase the amount of whole grains by making simple substitutions for refined grain products.  And just like with your fruits and vegetables try a new whole grain, such as whole-grain couscous, quinoa or barley.  Another easy way to add whole grains to your diet is ground flaxseed.  Flaxseeds are small brown seeds that are high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower your total blood cholesterol.  Add them to your yogurt or oatmeal.  You won’t even know it’s there.

Limit unhealthy fats and cholesterol – Limiting how much saturated and trans fat you eat is an important step to reduce your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of coronary heart disease.  A high blood cholesterol level can lead to a buildup of plaque in your arteries, called atherosclerosis, which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. 

The best way to reduce saturated and trans fat in your diet is to limit the amount of solid fats – butter, margarine and shortening – you add to food when cooking and serving.  You can also reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet by trimming fat off your meat and choosing lean meats with less than 10% fat (and remember to watch your portion sizes when it comes to eating meat.  We tend to eat too much).  Trans fats are added in to products to help extend their shelf life.  Check the food labels and look for the phrase “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list.  The labels may say they’re “trans-fat free”, however, they may still have trace amounts. 

When you do use fats, choose monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil or canola oil.  Polyunsaturated fats, found in nuts and seeds, are also good choices for a heart-healthy diet.  When used in place of saturated fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may help lower your total blood cholesterol.  Moderation IS essential.  All types of fat are high in calories.

Reduce the Sodium In Your Food – Eating a lot of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.  Reducing sodium is an important part of a heart-healthy diet.  Healthy adults should have no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day (about a teaspoon).  People age 51 or older, African-Americans, and people who have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease should have no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day. 

Reducing the amount of salt you add to food at the table while you cook is a good first step, however, much of the salt you eat comes from canned or processed foods, such as soups, salad dressings, and frozen dinners.  Eating fresh foods and making your own soups and stews can reduce the amount of salt you eat.  If you like the convenience of canned soups and prepared meals, look for ones with reduced sodium.  Another way to reduce the amount of salt you eat is to choose your condiments carefully.  Many condiments are available in reduced-sodium versions, and salt substitutes can add flavor to your food with less sodium. 

It’s often tough to change your eating habits.  Whether you have years of unhealthy eating or simply want to fine-tune your diet, these tips will help get you started.  While it’s important to focus on our diets, there are also things that we can do to help reduce our risk of heart disease.

Get Active – It’s easy to get discouraged about exercise.  It’s hard to fit into a busy lifestyle.  No excuses – like eating right, getting the exercise your heart needs is easier than it looks. 

If you’re not overweight, all you need to do to maintain a heart healthy lifestyle is 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five or more times a week.  And you don’t have to do it all at once –15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening are fine.  The research shows being physically inactive is a major risk factor for developing coronary artery disease.

And exercise is the gift that keeps on giving.  Regular, moderate exercise helps:  control blood pressure, prevent diabetes, maintain healthy cholesterol levels, and can even put you in a good mood.

If you need to lose weight, it’s going to take a little more effort.  The recommendation is low to moderate intensity activities for 60 minutes per day.  To lose weight you have to decrease your calories in and increase your calories out.  If you just reduce your caloric intake your body slows its metabolism to compensate.  The key is making sure to include exercise, daily.  Don’t skip it!

Don’t Smoke! – Smoking is the single most dangerous thing you can do to your heart.  Alone, cigarette smoking increases your risk of heart disease and also worsens other factors that contribute to heart disease, such as blood pressure and decreasing the levels of HDL, your good cholesterol.  If you smoke a pack a day, you have more than twice the risk of a heart attack than someone who doesn’t smoke. 

Every cigarette you cut back matters.  While the goal is always complete cessation, even eliminating one cigarette a day can make a difference.  A big plus:  It doesn’t take long for your body – and your heart in particular – to reap the health benefits of quitting.  Your heart rate and blood pressure will drop, your circulation and lung function improve, and just one year after quitting, your excess risk of coronary heart disease is just half that of a smoker’s.

Other Risk Factors – While these might not be on your radar they are very prevalent, commonly missed, and potentially dangerous for your heart.  They’re often called “silent epidemics”:  anger, anxiety, depression, and social isolation.  If you or someone you love is depressed or harboring a lot of anger, encourage them to seek help.  There are many methods to help you deal with these risk factors.

Family Tree – There are some risk factors that you can’t control, and family history is one of them.  If a close relative had a heart attack or died of heart disease then the health of your heart may be at greater risk.  Families share a predisposition to heart disease both because they have shared genes and a shared lifestyle.  While you get half of your genes from mom and half from dad you probably also get your eating and exercise habits from them too.  If you have a family history of heart disease, it’s important that you have yourself checked out. 

You can greatly reduce your risk of heart disease – or slow its progress – by taking prevention to heart.  Making small, gradual changes can make a big difference in your health.     

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