Heart Health Month
Here in the US, there is a lot of awareness currently being raised for a lot of causes. While we are being called to action on many fronts, we here at Red Dietitians can offer specific assistance in the federally recognized campaign that designates February as Heart Health Month. This can be a difficult topic to talk about because it directly affects so many of us, but that’s what makes it all the more important to do so. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The reason that we need to discuss it today is that it is also one of the most preventable.
What is Heart Disease?
Heart disease is also known as coronary artery disease, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. These names all refer to the same condition, in which fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up as plaque inside our arteries. The resultant clogging of arteries makes it difficult for the heart to pump oxygen-rich blood through our bodies and deliver critical substances to their destinations.
Not Just a Concern for the Elderly
One of the most alarming focus points of this year’s heart health campaign is to the fact that the conditions that lead to heart disease are appearing at younger and younger ages. It is important to realize that heart disease is not just a concern for the aging and elderly population. Younger generations need to be conscious of their heart health because they may be at a greater risk for heart disease than they realize. It is also crucial to understand that it is never too early to take this month as a reminder to stay on track with a healthy lifestyle in order to be able to remain at a low risk for heart disease.
Know Your Risk
Some of the conditions or situations that pose an increased risk for heart disease may be obvious, but others may be a little harder to see. Even what may appear to be a minor lifestyle choice may make a major difference when it comes to heart health. Take a look at the following and consider where you may stand. If you don’t know some of your recent health statistics, this may be a good reminder of the importance of a yearly physical. It is impossible to understand your risk for health concerns if you do not have the information that would help you determine it. Even if you get results that are not what you are hoping to hear, it will help you to understand your situation and what you need to prioritize to reach your goals.
Conditions That Pose Increased Risk for Heart Disease
- High blood pressure. Blood pressure is the force of the blood that is being pumped by the heart against the walls of the arteries. The higher this pressure is, the more strain is put on the heart because it has to work harder with each pump to get the blood moving. A goal blood pressure range is 120/60. If you either do not know your blood pressure or have an elevated blood pressure, getting control of your blood pressure is a great place to start to reduce your risk for heart disease. Approximately half of the people with high blood pressure don’t have it under control, which can be done with the help of a doctor through diet, lifestyle, and medication choices. Having uncontrolled high blood pressure is one of the biggest risks for heart disease, so this is a critical place to start when assessing your risk.
- High cholesterol. Cholesterol is a type of fat that has many important roles in the body, including the formation of cell membranes and hormones. However, it is important to understand the difference between the “good” cholesterol and the “bad” cholesterol. We talked a little bit about this last week, stressing that in addition to attaining a low total cholesterol level, it is important to strive for low levels of LDL and high levels of HDL. The reason that low levels of LDL are critical is because the LDL is the cholesterol that accumulates in the arteries. When arteries become blocked, it makes it much more difficult for the heart to function properly and pump blood through the body efficiently. Goal levels are less than 200 mg/dL total cholesterol and less than 100 md/gL LDL.
- Smoking. In addition to the other array of health concerns that smoking causes, it also damages the blood vessels and can cause heart disease.
- Obesity. Having a BMI of greater than 30 constitutes obesity, which really just means possessing too much body fat. The additional weight puts additional stress on the heart, and exacerbates any other underlying risk factors.
- Diabetes. Uncontrolled diabetes may cause damage to blood vessels due to build up of sugar levels in the blood. Working to keep these levels under control reduces the risk of heart disease, and therefore it is critical to understand your current blood sugar levels. A goal blood sugar is 60-100mg/dL.
- Physical inactivity. The heart is a muscle, and therefore must be used and conditioned to stay healthy.
- Unhealthy eating patterns. If you are finding this article, there is a good chance that you are taking interest in healthy eating habits. We talk a lot about various healthy eating habits, but this week for the heart health focus we are going to reiterate that a diet high in trans-fat, saturated fat, and added sugar increases the risk factor for heart disease.
Lower Your Risk for Heart Disease
In addition to understanding the factors that contribute to increased risk for heart disease, and maybe even more importantly, it may be helpful to understand what we can do to lower our risks (and/ or keep if low). The American Heart Association breaks it down into 4 Easy Steps.
- Eat smart. This is the area that we at Red Dietitians can offer the most help. A lot of these recommendations align with the Mediterranean Diet, which we highlighted recently. If you would like a more individualized heart healthy eating plan that would help to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, BMI, and control diabetes, please reach out to us and we would love to assist you in reducing your risk for heart disease.
- Cut back on food and drinks with added sugars. Consider completely eliminating drinks with added sugars and replacing with unsweetened tea or flavored water.
- Be conscious of the types of fats that you are choosing. Avoid foods that contain saturated fats and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and other trans-fats. For a guide in selecting healthy fats and oils, check out our post here.
- Choose fiber-rich whole grains for consuming grains. Easy swaps like choosing brown rice over white rice, and quinoa or wheat pasta instead of traditional white pasta will make a big difference when it comes to your heart health.
- When choosing foods, look at the sodium content. Choose foods with low sodium designation, and when preparing foods yourself, use little or no salt.
- Eat fish at least once a week, and even twice a week if you are willing and able. If you are not able to consume this much fish, consider a fish oil supplement. Please contact Red Dietitians if you are interested in adding supplements to your diet routine, so that the correct types and amounts can be determined for your individual needs.
- Reduce consumption of dairy products. Use grass fed butter in moderation and consider swapping butter for avocado or coconut oil in cooking and baking. When using dairy, opt for organic options. If organic products are not an option for you, consider dairy free, plant based options, including almond milk, cashew milk, or Elmhurst products.
2. Add color.
- At every meal, try to fill at least half your plate with fruits and veggies.
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Although fresh sources will provide the most nutrients, if it is more practical for your lifestyle, consider frozen and canned vegetables and fruits without any added sauces, salt, or sugars.
3. Move more.
- Get into a habit of regular, moderate exercise for at least 150 minutes per week. That’s just 30 minutes a day, five days a week. It doesn’t have to be the most vigorous workouts. Find a routine that works for you.
- Red Dietitians offers yoga instruction in various settings. Come practice with us on Tuesdays from 10-11AM at Connected Health in Wexford, or we also offer private lessons at your home or workplace. Please contact us if you would be interested in learning more
4. Be well.
- It is important to take care of all parts of our bodies, including our mental and emotional well-being. This includes getting the recommended amount of sleep, managing stress, and making time to connect socially with those in our lives.
In addition to recommendations of the American Heart Association, I’m going to venture to add 2 more heart health recommendations that are easy but will make a drastic difference in your heart health.
- Meet with your doctor. Getting your yearly physical allows you to understand where your health stands and what adjustments you may need to make. It also gives you the opportunity to manage any ongoing conditions with your primary care doctor, or be referred to a specialist that may be able to provide additional help.
- Don’t smoke or stop smoking. Not only will this lower your risk for heart disease, it will also reduce your risk for numerous other diseases as well.
Heart Healthy Meal Plan
In honor of heart health month, we are so excited to highlight a few recipes from Marina at Olives and Feta blog. As mentioned above, the Mediterranean Diet aligns well with recommendations of the American Heart Association.
Day #2: This Vegetable Casserole is a great way to get the recommended amounts of a variety of veggies as recommended for heart health.
Day #5: Lean protein and lots of veggies packed full of flavor and ready in minutes, this Taco Salad is a perfect weeknight meal.