We usually think of heart disease as a man’s disease, but heart disease is the number one killer of women. Fortunately, there is so much we can do to make our hearts healthier so we can live longer, stronger lives.
HEART HEALTHY BASICS
First, if you smoke, stop. Second, make your diet more “heart healthy” and be sure you’re getting plenty of exercises and physical activity. Good food and getting moving will help manage cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight, can prevent or manage diabetes and regular exercise will strengthen your heart and manage stress.
Let me give you a primer on heart health so you can understand the “whys” of changing your lifestyle.
Understanding Blood Cholesterol
First off, let’s talk about “blood cholesterol” or the cholesterol that circulates in our bodies, not the cholesterol we get from food. There is “bad” cholesterol or “LDL” cholesterol and we want that cholesterol low. Too much of it builds up in our blood vessels and starts to make them seem like pipes that need some liquid plumber; basically, the “hose” starts to lose its flexibility and the inside gets smaller and doesn’t let the blood flow as easily as it should.
If too much of it builds up, it can cause a clot which can cause a heart attack or stroke. Then there is “good” cholesterol or “HDL” cholesterol that helps keep the “bad” cholesterol from building up. What about high blood pressure? What’s the big deal? Imagine a garden hose that is too small to handle the amount of water going through. You can see how it would be bad for the hose, right? Imagine a pump that has to work extra hard to push that water through the hose; that’s what a heart has to do when blood pressure is high and one reason it’s unhealthy for us to have high blood pressure.
What does being overweight do to our hearts that’s so bad? It makes “bad” cholesterol high, it makes our blood pressure high, it makes “good” cholesterol low and makes developing diabetes much more likely. And the “heart problem” with diabetes? The extra glucose or sugar in the blood scars the arteries, then the arteries get stiff and hard, the “bad” cholesterol builds up and we’re back to our “pipes” needing a liquid plumber.
How Do We Get Eat Heart Healthy?
Enough with the doom and gloom, what do we do to keep our hearts healthy? We eat more fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. All of those foods have lots of soluble fiber that acts like a sponge to take the “bad” cholesterol out of our blood. They also have very little sodium and lots of potassium that helps to keep our blood pressure where it should be. Eating lots of those foods also keeps us feeling full without a lot of calories so it’s easier to maintain a healthy weight or lose excess weight. Those foods have vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and flavonoids that help our hearts.
Why not just take a multivitamin? Because vitamins just don’t do the same thing as eating the food. The more we study nutrition and the human body, the more we find out that it’s the whole food that is the best thing for us, not just the individual nutrients. There’s something synergistic about all of the teeny, tiny parts of the food working together that is so good for us. All fruits and vegetables are good for you, but picking a variety of bright colors (and even white, don’t forget cauliflower!) is the best way to make sure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs. Try to fill half your plate with fruits and non-starchy vegetables. Even better, fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables and have a piece of fruit on the side. The other thing to add is fatty fish so you can get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids. Flax and walnuts are good for you but don’t have the same form of omega-3 fatty acids as fish.
Those are foods you should eat more of and adding something is easier than taking something else away. Although, there are definitely some things we need to have less of. Avoid saturated fat because it raises our “bad” cholesterol.” Animal fat is the main source of saturated fat that we eat: marbled beef, cheese, whole milk, sausage, butter. We know we need to eat protein and that meat is a great source of it, so how do we change that? We choose lower fat versions. We pick a sirloin over a porterhouse, skim milk instead of whole or 2% and pork loin over bratwurst. Sometimes choosing a strongly flavored cheese like sharp cheddar instead of mild is a good way to use less so you get a lot of flavor without a lot of saturated fat.
I am not the “food police” and do think that all foods can be part of a healthy diet, except for trans fat because it raises “bad” cholesterol and lowers “good” cholesterol. Look for the words “partially hydrogenated” when you read labels. Even if the box says, “No trans fat!” if it has “partially hydrogenated” oil of any kind, it has the unhealthy stuff in it. Choose olive oil or pick soft tub margarine, but read the label. You’ll find that packaged cookies, crackers, stick margarine, and donuts tend to have “partially hydrogenated” oil as an ingredient.
What else do you need to limit? Limit the amount of sodium you consume since too much can increase blood pressure. You’ll find lots of sodium in packaged and processed foods and in restaurant food. Don’t go overboard on alcohol since it can also raise blood pressure. Too many sweets can give you too many calories with very little nutrition, but the more you get moving, the more you have some “wiggle room” with calories.
And finally, get your body moving! Give up the excuses. Find time. Make it part of your life. Yes, it is that important. Thirty minutes a day is great, but more is better. You should sweat, you should breathe hard and, yes, you should be uncomfortable. Any activity is good, but aim high! Set a goal to run a 10K, commit to 5 classes at the gym each week, walk four miles in one hour and then also just be more active by playing with your kids, parking at the end of the lot, taking the stairs and getting off the couch. I promise, you can do more than you think you can and it will be worth it.