Heart Disease: What you need to know
Heart disease (aka: cardiovascular disease) is the leading cause of death in Americans, both male and female. According to the CDC, more than half a million people die of heart disease each year. Age, genetics, and previous heart attacks or strokes all increase the risk of heart disease. The good news is, many things are within our control when it comes to mitigating our heart disease risk.
Improve your numbers.
Cholesterol and lipid profile
We often hear about dietary cholesterol as a contributor to poor health, including heart disease risk. However, there’s more to the story than just total cholesterol levels. Paying attention to HDL (good) cholesterol versus LDL cholesterol is important, as is noting the characteristics of your specific LDL particles - the larger, fluffier particles being less harmful. Also note, studies show that intake of cholesterol-rich foods (eggs, shrimp, etc.) does not necessarily translate to your cholesterol lab values. Instead, our overall dietary patterns are the main culprit, particularly consumption of unhealthy saturated fats and refined sugars, among other things.
Triglycerides are an often overlooked part of the lipid profile, but this type of fat plays a critical role in our health. However, high triglyceride levels can negatively impact your health. Triglycerides increase with the consumption of processed foods, high sodium intake, and refined carbohydrates including sugar, refined grains, and alcohol. Overconsumption of such foods on a regular basis will lead to an increased risk of a poor lipid profile, and subsequent risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
Trans fats, found in margarine, prepackaged cookies, chips, etc., and saturated fats, found in red meats, lard, and processed foods, have a more direct and rapid effect on triglyceride levels. If triglyceride levels are too high, they cause plaque buildup in arteries and harm to the heart. Studies show children as young as age 10 already have fatty streaks in their arteries – the beginning stages of plaque buildup. Extremely high triglyceride levels can lead to other diseases as well, including diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney and liver disease.
Foods contributing to a poor lipid profile:
Processed (pre-packaged) foods are high in additives necessary for preservation. They are also traditionally very high in sodium, which contributes to higher blood pressure and heart strain.
Foods that are deep fried, commercially packaged meals/snacks, pastries, baked goods, and vegetable shortenings are often made with hydrogenated oils that contribute saturated and trans fats that, overtime, will increase triglycerides and cholesterol levels.
Replace animal saturated fats (lard, red meat) with mono- & poly-unsaturated fats like salmon, tuna, and lean turkey and chicken.
Add olives, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds to your weekly routine.
Broil, bake, or roast your meats rather than fry. Remove the skin or visible fat on meats.
Mind your waist line.
Excess calories consumed, but not used, are stored as fat, and over time can lead to weight gain. While being overweight does not necessarily indicate health risk (just as a normal weight status does not necessarily translate to optimal health), where you carry weight makes a big difference.
Weight carried around the mid-section, surrounding the liver and other abdominal organs (think “apple shaped”) is linked to higher levels of “metabolically active” fat. This fat releases inflammatory agents into the system, which are detrimental to health.
Waist circumference of 40 inches or more for men, and 35 inches or more for women (regardless of weight status) is indicative of increased risk. Further, studies show that individuals of “normal” weight status with a waist circumference above the recommended number had three times the risk of death from heart disease compared to normal-weight individuals with a waist size below the recommended number.
Regular exercise and a healthy eating pattern is critical for all individuals, and can especially reduce disease risk for those carrying weight around the mid-section. Studies show that even just 10% weight loss for individuals that are overweight or obese with a corresponding risk factor, can significantly reduce their risk of developing diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Slash your sugars.
Individuals with high blood sugars, diagnosed as diabetic or not, have an increased risk of other diseases. Over time, high blood glucose can damage blood vessels, which in turn may cause heart and organ damage.
The good news is, if you have diabetes you can protect your heart by managing your blood glucose. If you are pre-diabetic (high sugars but not within diabetic range), you have an opportunity to reverse your risk with a few lifestyle improvements. Additionally, individuals with blood sugars within a healthy range can work to keep those numbers low.
Limit sugary snacks like grain-based desserts (cakes, pastries, brownies, donuts), ice cream, candies, syrups, etc. These “fun foods” should be limited to 10% of your calories per day.
Choose unsweetened fruits and snacks, and drinks without added sugar (like infused water, 100% fruit or vegetable juice and milk).
Keep in mind that all simple sugars have an effect on blood sugar levels. This includes honey, raw sugar, agave, etc., not just the ones touted as unhealthy (white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, etc.).
Pair carbohydrate snacks and meals with protein and fats to slow your metabolism and blunt sugar spikes. For example, pair a piece of whole wheat toast with 1 tablespoon peanut butter and a sprinkle of ground flaxseed or chia seeds.
Lower your blood pressure.
Plaque buildup in the arteries prevents blood from flowing freely and increases the force needed for blood to travel to and from the heart and other organs. This increase in blood pressure can lead to other conditions ranging from arrhythmia, to heart attack and stroke. We often do not have signs or symptoms of high blood pressure, so knowing your numbers is critical. Just like many other heart disease factors listed above, high blood pressure can largely be prevented through a healthy lifestyle (however, race, age, and family history can also play a role).
Increase foods rich in potassium like leafy greens, sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, tomatoes, beets, cantaloupe, strawberries, and asparagus.
Limit alcohol to the recommended intake of not more than 1 or 2 drinks per day for women and men, respectively.
Limit your intake of highly processed, prepackaged foods like frozen meals, pizzas, cakes, and pastries, as these are frequently very high in sodium.
Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise each day.
Reduce stress levels by meditating, exercising, and deep breathing.