If you think heart disease just happens to older adults, guess what? YOU'RE WRONG!! Heart disease can occur at any age. In fact, more younger people are diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Other conditions and behaviors that increase your risk for heart disease include smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, and unhealthy dietary intake.
February is Heart Health month. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. Fortunately, this is a disease that is largely preventable just by making healthy choices and managing health conditions.
How Does Smoking Damage Your Heart? 🚭
Smoking has several negative effects on the heart:
- Damage to arterial lining leads to accumulation of fatty material, which causes narrowing of the artery. This may cause a stroke or heart attack.
- Depletion of oxygen in your blood (due to the presence of carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke) causes your heart to work harder to supply the body with necessary oxygen.
- Nicotine stimulates adrenaline (the "fight or flight" hormone) production, which increases heart rate and blood pressure (i.e., your heart has to work harder).
- Increased likelihood of blood clotting which increases risk of heart attack or stroke
The benefits of quitting smoking are almost instantaneous!!
After 20 minutes: Heart rate and blood pressure drops
After 8-12 hours: Carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal
After 48 hours: Sense of taste and smell starts to return
After 2 weeks - 3 months: Circulation improves
After 1-9 months: Coughing and shortness of breath decrease due to improved lung function
At 2-5 years: Stroke risk falls to that of a non-smoker
What's the Connection Between Obesity and Heart Disease?
The more overweight you are, the more likely you are to develop heart disease. Obesity contributes to elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar; all are modifiable risk factors for heart disease.
High Blood Pressure: An obese person has additional fat tissue which also requires oxygen and nutrients, thus requiring additional blood flow to these tissues. Workload on the heart increases, as it must pump more blood, resulting in increased pressure on arterial walls and blood pressure.
High Cholesterol: Coronary artery disease is oftentimes present in the obese person. Cholesterol (i.e., LDL cholesterol) deposits into the arterial wall and can lead to plaque formation, which ultimately results in narrowed arteries, decreased blood flow to the heart, chest pain, heart attack, or stroke.
High Blood Sugar (Diabetes): Obesity is the major cause of adult-onset diabetes (DM2). Obesity may cause insulin resistance, that is, the body makes enough insulin (a hormone that lowers the amount of sugar in the blood), however, cells become resistant to its action. This leads to persistently high concentration of sugar in the bloodstream.
Losing just 5-10% of your current weight (if you are overweight) will help lower your heart disease risk. Speak with your doctor and registered dietitian about a weight loss and/or maintenance program that works well for you.
Physical Inactivity: A Lethal Weapon Against Your Heart
Physical inactivity increases your risk for blood clots, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and other heart related problems. Regular exercise helps strengthen the heart. A strong heart can pump blood more efficiently throughout the body. If the heart does not have to work as hard, arterial pressure is decreased, thus lowering blood pressure. Regular exercise also improves efficiency of coronary blood flow, helps lower LDL (a.k.a. "bad") cholesterol, and increase HDL (a.k.a. "good") cholesterol, which actually helps protect against heart disease. Other benefits of regular physical activity include more energy, decreased risk of developing DM2, less stress, easier time falling and staying asleep, increased muscle strength, and improved mood.
So...……...what am I trying to say?? GET MOVING!!
(But first, if you have a chronic disease, be sure to talk to your doctor or other health professional about what types and amount of physical activity are appropriate.)
- Schedule physical activity as you would any other "important" appointment
- Make sure the activity is something YOU ENJOY!
- Find a workout partner (if you get bored easily)
- Figure out the best time of day for you to workout
- Start slowly and work your way up to more physically challenging activities -- walking is usually a good starting point
Current exercise guidelines for adults recommend at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular (cardio) exercise per week. Being physically active over time may reverse or decrease negative effects of physical inactivity.
Fuel Your Heart With Healthy Foods
Eating too much fat-, cholesterol-, and sodium-laden foods can increase your risk for heart disease (you've heard this a million times, right??). So, I encourage you to start eating the "Heart Healthy Way".
Let's start with fats....
Choose heart-healthy unsaturated fats which can be found in fish , 🥑, nuts, and vegetable oils (e.g., sunflower, canola, and olive).
Limit saturated and avoid trans fats as much as possible. Saturated fat is usually found in animal-based protein (e.g., 🌭, butter, 🧀, 🍨, lard, poultry skin, and whole milk). Trans fats are found in numerous processed foods, stick margarine, some fried foods, convenience/packaged foods made with hydrogenated oils, 🥧, 🍰, and 🍩. Be sure to check the nutrition label! Saturated and trans fats contribute to raised LDL cholesterol levels in the diet.
You can reduce your intake of saturated fats by:
- Cooking with vegetable oil instead of animal oil
- Using healthy cooking methods (e.g., broiling, steaming, baking, roasting, stewing, stir-frying) instead of frying
- Trimming fat from meats before cooking
- Choosing lean cuts of beef and pork
- Eating fish regularly
- Fish and seafood contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA and docosahexaenoic acid, DHA).
- Good choices of these heart-healthy fats include salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines.
- Plant-based sources of omega-3 fats (i.e., alpha-linolenic acid, ALA) include flaxseed, walnuts, canola and soybean oils, pumpkin and chia seeds
- Removing skin from poultry before serving it
- Eating more plant-based sources of protein such as soy, dried beans, nuts, and seeds
What About Cholesterol?
Limit the amount of cholesterol you eat to less than 200 milligrams (mg) per day. A heart-healthy diet decreases blood levels of unhealthy cholesterol (i.e., LDL), which lowers your risk for heart disease. Food sources of cholesterol include egg yolk, organ meats, 🧀, 🦐, 🦀, lobster, and whole milk.
Unlike LDL cholesterol, you should focus on increasing HDL cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol AWAY from your heart and other organs, delivers it back to the liver where it is subsequently passed from the body. You can increase HDL levels by exercising regularly, stop smoking, losing extra weight, and choosing healthier fats.
What Role Does Fiber Play in Reducing Risk of Heart Disease?
There are two types of fiber (soluble and insoluble), but let's focus on soluble fiber since it binds cholesterol and removes it from the body. Thus, it aids in lowering LDL cholesterol. Aim for 25-30g of total fiber (of which 5-10g should be soluble) per day for improved cholesterol levels and digestive function.
Try these tips for adding fiber to your diet:
- Eat whole fruit rather then drinking juice (but remember, the bulk of fiber is in the skin or peel!!).
- Choose whole grain products (e.g., breads, crackers, pasta, rice).
- Eat fiber-rich lean protein foods such as dried beans, chick peas, black-eyed peas, and soybeans.
- Add grated vegetables to casseroles, sauces, and meatloaf. You can add vegetables to sandwiches as well.
- Add dried or chopped fruit to salads and cereals.
When increasing fiber intake, do so GRADUALLY and drink plenty of water. Trust me, increased fiber intake combined with inadequate water intake can have the same result as not eating enough fiber (i.e., constipation).
Ease Up on the Sodium!!
A low-sodium (salt) diet rewards your body with reduced blood pressure, loss of water weight, and improved heart health. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend less than 2300 mg of sodium per day -- the equivalent of ~ 1 teaspoon of salt. Not a whole lot, right?? For those with high blood pressure, 1500 mg sodium per day may be more helpful in reducing blood pressure. This means that reading food labels is an absolute MUST, especially if you are monitoring sodium intake. Try to select foods with no more than 300 mg sodium per serving.
So, how do you cut back on the salt?
- Eat more fresh and less processed foods.
- Most foods in their natural form are naturally low in sodium
- Processed and ready-to-eat foods are usually higher in sodium (e.g., cured meats, canned foods, packaged rice/pasta mixes, "Instant" mixes)
- Cook more often!!
- Eating freshly prepared meals at home puts you in control of how much salt is added to foods
- Use as little salt as possible when cooking
- Rinse and drain canned vegetables before cooking
- Do not add salt after cooking; taste your food BEFORE adding salt (if you have to)
- Add flavor without adding salt
- Use various herbs, spices, garlic, onion, peppers, and lemon/lime juice for added flavor
- Either purchase or make your own sodium-free seasoning blend
- Limit use of any seasoning that has the word "salt" in the name or on the label (unless it's salt-free, of course)
- READ FOOD LABELS!!!
- Look for food packages labeled "salt-free", "sodium-free", "low-sodium", "reduced sodium", or "no salt added".
- Do not rely solely on front-of-package advertising!! Always look at the Nutrition Facts label for actual sodium content.
- Watch those condiments!
- They can be high in sodium.
- Opt for low-sodium varieties if possible.
And don't worry.....your taste buds will adapt to your low-sodium lifestyle! Just give it time.😊
Last, but not least, KNOW YOUR NUMBERS...
Total Cholesterol: ≤ 200 mg/dL
HDL Cholesterol: ≥ 50 mg/dL (women); ≥ 40 mg/dL (men)
LDL Cholesterol: ≤ 100 mg/dL
Triglycerides: ≤ 150 mg/dL
Hemoglobin A1c: < 5.7%
Fasting Blood Sugar: < 100 mg/dL
Blood Pressure: < 120/80
In summary, do all you can to take good care of your heart and lower your risk for developing heart disease. After all, it is the hardest working muscle in your body and deserves a treat!💝
As always, thanks for reading!
Yours in good health,