American Heart Month Series Part 2: How to Keep Your Heart Healthy
Last week, we kicked off American Heart Month by discussing the causes of heart and cardiovascular disease. We also covered the various forms cardiovascular disease can take. In this week’s entry, we’ll discuss how to keep your heart healthy to prevent heart and cardiovascular disease.
To keep your heart healthy and protect it from cardiovascular disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends five factors for a healthy lifestyle:
- Eat a healthy diet
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Stay physically active
- Avoid smoking and other tobacco use
- Limit alcohol use
We’ll break these steps down and show you how to make changes in your lifestyle that can keep your heart healthy.
A Healthy Diet
The food you eat can affect your chances of developing heart disease. Choosing healthy foods and avoiding fats, cholesterol, salt and sugar can help decrease the risk. A great starting place to learn about healthy eating is ChooseMyPlate.gov, which offers numerous helpful tools and resources that can guide you to better food choices.
Saturated and Trans Fats
Although some oils are necessary to keep your body healthy, some types of fat should be limited or avoided to protect yourself from heart disease. Both saturated and trans fats are considered “bad” fats that increase the risk of heart disease. In our first American Heart Month post, we talked about plaque that builds up in your arteries. As the plaque builds up, blood flow to the heart becomes limited and could lead to heart attacks.
Saturated fats are found in meats, such as beef, pork and chicken. Foods that are higher in saturated fat often may be solid at room temperature, such as butter or margarine. Trans fats are created from vegetable oils that go through a chemical process called “hydrogenation.” Hydrogenation makes the vegetable oil a saturated fat, so it takes on the properties of a solid fat. Trans fats are found in many common processed foods, like store-bought cookies, cakes, crackers and microwave popcorn. While both saturated and trans fats should be avoided, trans fats are especially dangerous because they increase the “bad” cholesterol in your blood and lower the “good” cholesterol you need.
How to avoid “bad” fats? Limit your consumption of red meat, dairy products, butter, margarine and fried foods. Try to avoid processed foods, and read ingredient labels carefully to find hydrogenated substances.
Choose instead: Eat foods containing unsaturated fats. Use olive oil instead of butter or margarine. Drink skim milk and use reduced-fat cheeses. Instead of sour cream, use low-fat, plain yogurt.
Cholesterol is a substance somewhat like a fat that is present in your body. Your body needs some cholesterol to work effectively, but your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. If you’re eating foods that contain cholesterol, it may build up in your body, and that excess build-up will stay in your blood causing high cholesterol. Like fats, cholesterol is one of the substances that make up the plaque that can block arteries.
How to avoid high cholesterol and make a healthier choice? You can reduce your cholesterol intake with the same strategies you’d use to avoid saturated and trans fats.
Limiting salt can keep your blood pressure lower. In last week’s post, we talked about high blood pressure as a risk factor for heart disease. By reducing salt intake, you may lower your blood pressure or even prevent high blood pressure. While it’s a good idea to reduce the amount of table salt you add to food, it’s also important to monitor how much sodium is already in your food. For example, common foods you buy in the grocery store may contain quite a bit of sodium: canned vegetables and soup, frozen entrees or meals, cheeses, chicken, as well as deli meats.
How to reduce sodium? Remove the salt shaker from your kitchen table, and don’t add salt to recipes. Read food labels to watch the amount of sodium in them. Processed foods that contain preservatives are a common source of added sodium.
Choose instead: Try low-sodium versions of the foods you enjoy. Increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat (but watch the labels for added sodium). Limit the use of processed foods. Use other spices and herbs to add flavor.
Reducing the amount of sugar in your diet helps to lower your blood sugar level. This can help you prevent diabetes or control it. Too much sugar can lead to cardiovascular disease. It also causes obesity and high blood pressure. In an American Heart Association study, researchers found that the risk of death from heart disease increased with the amount of sugar an individual consumes. Limiting use of table sugar is a good starting place, but just as with salt, sugar may be present in common foods you purchase at the grocery store, such as yogurt, canned fruits, fruit punch and breakfast cereals.
How to reduce sugar? Limit use of table sugar and be wary of added sugar in the foods you buy. Some foods, such as sodas, cakes, pies, cookies and ice cream, are obvious sources of added sugar, but look for it in unexpected places, like in breads, yogurt and canned fruit. Look for ingredients on food labels like brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, malt sugar, molasses, and ingredients ending in “-ose,” such as fructose, glucose and lactose.
Choose instead: Natural foods are a good choice, such as fresh fruits and dairy, which contain naturally occurring sugars. Also, look for foods labeled “no added sugar.” Buy canned fruit packed in juice rather than heavy syrup. Bake or cook at home rather than rely on processed foods. This will help you control the amount of sugar in recipes and replace sugar with other ingredients.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is an eating plan widely recognized by experts as an effective way to keep your heart healthy. The traditional Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease as well as “bad” cholesterol that can clog arteries. Following an eating plan similar to the Mediterranean diet can help to reduce cardiovascular disease as well as other chronic illnesses.
Fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains are the emphasis in the Mediterranean diet. A typical Mediterranean individual might consume as many as nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Grains generally include pasta, rice and bread; however, bread is eaten with olive oil rather than butter or margarine. Nuts provide protein, but are limited to a handful per day due to fat content. Fish and chicken are eaten at least twice a week, while red meat is limited to a few meals per month. Sweets and salt also are limited. A glass of red wine and regular exercise round out the Mediterranean diet.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
It’s important to know whether you’re at a healthy weight because people who are overweight are at greater risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other health conditions. How do you know whether your current weight is healthy? There are several methods to find out: waist and hip measurements, your resting heart rate, your percentage of body fat and your Basal Metabolic Rate.
Measuring waist circumference can help determine whether your abdominal size is healthy. The CDC says that people with higher amounts of abdominal fat are at greater risk for health conditions associated with obesity. Your waist measurement could indicate whether you are at higher risk:
- Men whose waist measurements are more than 40 inches.
- Women (non-pregnant) with waist measurements greater than 35 inches.
Resting Heart Rate
Your resting heart rate tells you how hard your heart is working while you’re at rest. Lower resting heart rates indicate better health.
It’s easy to calculate your resting heart rate. Find your pulse, and place two fingers over it. For one minute, count the number of beats. A range of 60 to 100 beats per minute is considered normal.
Body Fat Percentage
The benefit of measuring body fat is that it gives a more accurate picture of your excess fat without weighing in your muscle mass. Generally, you’d need to visit your gym or health club to have your body fat measured by a process called bioelectrical impedance analysis. A machine is used to measure the amount of fat in your body in comparison with muscle. For women, a healthy percentage of body fat ranges from 20 to 32 percent. For men, the percentage is 13 to 25 percent.
Basal Metabolic Rate
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the approximate number of calories you burn while you’re at rest. It is the minimum number of calories you need for your body to function. BMR is calculated based on your height, weight, age and gender. If you need to lose weight, you can use your BMR to figure out how many calories you should cut from your diet.
Regardless of the method you use to measure your weight, be sure to confirm your findings with your doctor or health care provider for a complete assessment of your health.
How to maintain a healthy weight? Follow the tips in No. 1 and No. 3 in this post for healthy eating and physical activity.
Stay Physically Active
Whether you want to maintain your current healthy weight or lose weight, physical activity is a necessary component of a healthy lifestyle. Though losing weight is beneficial to prevent heart disease and stroke, adding exercise reduces the risks even more. The CDC says physical activity not only helps to maintain weight, but it also reduces the risks of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, Type 2 Diabetes and other health conditions.
Maintaining Your Current Weight
According to the CDC, physical activity is the only way to maintain weight over time. They recommend gradually working up to 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity, 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity or a combination of the two.
To lose weight with exercise alone, a high amount of physical activity will be necessary. The CDC says losing weight requires both an adjustment in physical activity and in eating habits.
Moderate Versus Vigorous Exercise
Moderate exercise generally is defined as an activity level in which you notice an increased heart and breathing rate, but you can still carry on a conversation. Brisk walking, light yard work (such as mowing the lawn or raking leaves) and biking are examples of moderate exercise.
Vigorous exercise is more intense with a marked increase in heart rate. You likely would be unable to have a conversation during vigorous exercise. Examples of vigorous exercise are jogging, competitive sports and lap swimming.
Avoid smoking and other tobacco use
Cigarette smoking is associated with several disorders, such as atherosclerosis. According to the American Heart Association, many studies have found a strong link between coronary heart disease and smoking, which can lead to heart attacks. Smoking alone can increase coronary artery disease, but it’s particularly risky when combined with other factors, such as decreased tolerance for physical activity and increased blood clotting. In addition, smoking decreases good (HDL) cholesterol.
Cigarette smoking also increases the risk of stroke. The smoke from cigarettes can damage the cerebrovascular system.
Cigar and pipe smokers also have increased risk of coronary heart disease, but it’s not as high a risk as cigarette smoking. More than likely, the American Heart Association says, this is because pipe and cigar smokers generally don’t inhale the smoke.
Quitting smoking can provide almost-immediate benefits to your health. The American Heart Association says that a former smoker’s risk of coronary artery disease and stroke will be similar to a nonsmoker’s after a few years.
How to quit? There are numerous programs to help people stop smoking. The most important thing is to find a strategy or combination of tactics that will work for you. The American Heart Association has a number of resources that can help you quit. The American Lung Association also has numerous resources and information as well as a program called Freedom From Smoking.
Limit alcohol use
The American Heart Association recommends that alcohol consumption should be limited to moderate drinking. Moderate drinking is defined as one drink per day for women and one to two drinks per day for men. For example, a 12-ounce beer or a four-ounce glass of wine is moderately sized. Drinking more than moderately increases the risk of high blood pressure, obesity, stroke and other health concerns.
Following these five factors for a healthy lifestyle can keep your heart healthy and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Check out the infographic we’ve created to support your heart-healthy lifestyle!
Stay tuned for our next blog post, when we talk about what to do if you or someone you know might be having a heart attack or stroke. Learn to recognize the symptoms because seconds count!
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