Heart disease remains the number one killer in the United States but the good news is that each one of us can positively impact our heart health destinies. The risk for developing heart disease can be decreased through healthy dietary and lifestyle measures.
What is a “heart healthy” diet?
The healthiest diets include a variety of foods but emphasize vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and healthy sources of “good” fat while decreasing the emphasis on animal protein. They also promote far smaller serving sizes than typically seen in Western-style diets.
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be healthy, but eating plenty of fruits and vegetables of different colors helps to ensure you get the wide range of available nutrients that may help keep you well. Adults should have between 2-3 cups of vegetables and 1.5-2 cups of fruit each day.
Foods that contain plenty of fiber are not only good for your digestive tract but also help lower cholesterol levels.
- Animal protein and whole fat dairy products are often very high in saturated fat, and diets high in saturated fat appear to increase one’s risk for high cholesterol and heart disease. It’s okay to enjoy meat or even whole fat dairy on occasion, but gradually shifting to more fresh fish dishes, vegetarian protein sources (examples include beans, soy and nuts), and low-fat dairy can be healthier for you. In addition, it’s important to minimize your exposure to trans fat, which can be worse for you than saturated fat (the easiest ways to do this are to look for Harris Teeter wellness keys that read “0 Grams Trans Fat Per Serving” on select products and to read food labels).
Why the emphasis on fish? The answer is omega-3 fatty acids, the type of fat found in cold water fish (like Alaskan salmon, sardines, herring, and sable) that appears to help decrease inflammation and, when eaten regularly, lower one’s risk for heart disease.
Perhaps the easiest way to translate this information into “real-world” living is to follow a Mediterranean-style diet – lots of vegetables and fruit, whole grain pastas, a little animal protein in the form of fish, occasional small servings of delicious cheeses and tasty meats, regular use of healthy oils like extra virgin olive oil, a dash of garlic added to most recipes, and a handful of walnuts or almonds every other day.
Any time there is discussion of healthy eating there needs to be an associated discussion on healthy exercise. They go together like whole grain pasta and extra virgin olive oil – one shouldn’t be considered without the other! Speak with your doctor about how to get started safely, consider working with a trainer for a few weeks to help you get on track, wear a pedometer to help you increase the number of steps you take each day, maybe even ask a friend to join you as you begin or change your exercise program.
What else can I do to prevent heart disease?
Please don’t smoke – if you’ve never smoked PLEASE don’t start. If you do smoke seek assistance from your doctor, your friends, the American Lung Association – any reputable source that can help you stop. Research shows that this one step may play the single most important role in keeping your heart healthy. (Psst – also do your best to avoid secondhand smoke…).
Manage stress healthily – everyone has stress in their lives, but very few people possess the tools to help them manage stress effectively and healthfully. Chronic, unrelenting stress has been associated with increased inflammation and risk for heart disease. Be kind to yourself and experience some of the many ways to healthily lessen stress’ harmful effects. Good examples include exercise, laughter, journaling and meditation.
Get enough sleep – it’s recommended that adults get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. That may not seem like a lot, but most of us don’t get even that much sleep. In addition, many of us have sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, that can increase the risk for heart disease and for which we’ve not yet sought treatment. Be sure to go to bed at a regular time each night to help ensure you get at least 7 hours of sleep. Turn down the lights and turn off all the electronics an hour before bedtime, and no caffeine after lunch hour. If you’ve been told that you snore, one of the cardinal signs of sleep apnea, ask your doctor whether a visit to a sleep specialist might be in order.
Feed your spirit – data suggest that people who regularly participate in spiritual practices, be they religious or secular, seem to be healthier than those who do not make time to connect to something greater than themselves. Attend services, gaze at the stars in wonder, create time during the week to enjoy the beauty all around us, reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves – these and similar activities feed both our souls and our hearts.
See your doctor regularly – the annual physical examination with your doctor serves not only to help prevent or at least identify health problems as early as possible, but also to deepen the healing relationship between patient and practitioner.
Information contained in this e-letter is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional. You should not use the information in this e-letter for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication or other treatment.