From my heart to yours: Heart disease remains the leading killer in the United States. Please consider renewing your commitment to healthy heart habits for Heart Month and beyond.
Knowing that heart disease affects so many people in the United States, I’m sure many of you can understand my story. My father has had heart disease since he was 3 and passed away just 10 years later. A darling uncle followed, then another uncle (my father’s brothers). My mother had a heart attack at age 80, which marked the start of her decline in health. Then recently, I myself experienced a cardiac arrhythmia. I was fortunate to have a lot of care at the Cleveland Clinic where an ablation procedure cured my symptoms – but I’m still careful to follow the lifestyle habits to avoid future problems.
I am also marking an important anniversary this month, and my health is at the center of my thoughts. Sure, I can’t do anything about genetics or age as risk factors, but there is a lot I can do! It is not because I am a professional dietitian nutritionist that I am immune to health problems – or bad habits for that matter! The past few years have been difficult between caring for our elderly parents and recovering from my own heart problem. But now that things have calmed down a bit, I’m committed to making some more heart-healthy changes. For me, it’s not just about losing weight; it’s about being healthy and having more energy to do the things I want to do. I was already doing most of the steps outlined below, and now I’ve added more to my regular routine. The steps are not in any particular order. Don’t worry about making all the changes at once – just pick a step that you think you can stick to, and go from there.
Some essentials: If you smoke, quit! Find a good program to quit smoking. Know your numbers: manage your weight, cholesterol, LDL, as well as your high blood pressure and blood sugar if you have diabetes. Find a way to stay active. Follow a herbal diet and follow the doctor’s instructions for prescribed medications. Some of the steps below can help you get started.
Step 1: Increase your physical activity! Exercise lowers blood pressure, strengthens your heart, helps maintain lean mass, burns calories, and makes you feel great! Walking is one of the easiest exercises to incorporate into your day. Experts encourage a minimum of 10,000 steps per day (equivalent to 5 miles) – and yes, it is possible to fit that into a busy schedule. If you’re just getting started, walk at least 10 minutes at a time. Gradually increase to a minimum of 60 minutes most days to meet the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
Before changing your routine, consult your doctor. Once you’ve got the OK, use a fitness tracker or pedometer to count the current number of steps you take per day to use as a starting point. I’ve worn a pedometer or Fitbit for over 10 years to help keep me on track. I love the feature of my Fitbit that reminds me to take at least 250 steps every hour! I no longer sit in front of my computer working for hours without moving.
Step 2: Cut back on high calorie drinks. Do you drink sugary drinks every day? Just 8 ounces of most sugary drinks contains 100 calories, and most people don’t stop at 8 ounces. 100 extra calories a day adds up to 3,500 extra calories in just 5 weeks – which could mean an extra pound of weight – or 10 extra pounds in a year!
What about alcohol? Did that “healthy” 100-calorie-a-day glass of wine turn into 2 or more glasses a day? Calories from alcohol drop quickly and can also help you control your food intake.
Eliminate sugary drinks and alcohol for at least 30 days to break this habit. Replace them with unsweetened drinks such as water, sparkling water, diffused water (lemons, limes, cucumbers or fruit), hot or iced tea.
Step 3: Cut out saturated fat. Animal fats found in meats, poultry, whole dairy products (milk, cheese, sour cream, yogurt, etc.), salad dressings, and fried foods are full of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease. Reduce portions, cut off visible fat from meat, remove skin from poultry, prepare foods using low-fat cooking methods (baking, broiling, roasting), and read labels to identify foods containing polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats for better health. Skim or 1% milk, low fat cheese and sour cream, low fat yogurt and other low fat dairy products are available – and many of them taste great!
Ready-made spray cans of healthy oils found at the grocery store can help control how much fat you use. Choose a healthy corn, safflower, or olive oil to spray on foods so you can bake them instead of frying or brushing them with oil.
Step 4: Eat your vegetables and fruits! Eat a Range of Colors: Green, red, orange, yellow vegetables and fruits contain essential nutrients and fiber for good health. These foods are rich in vitamins C, A, potassium, antioxidants, phytochemicals; and are naturally low in fat and sodium.
Fill at least half of your plate with vegetables and have fresh fruit for dessert or snacks.
Step 5: Reduce the sugar. I’ve always had a sweet tooth, but cut back on sweets to improve my health and manage my weight. Most of us eat a lot more sugar than we realize. It hides in juices, jellies, jams, cookies, candies, cakes, pies, regular soft drinks, cereals, snack bars, condiments and many other foods.
Start with obvious sources of sugar and move on to naturally sweet foods like fruit (fresh, canned without syrup, frozen without sugar, or dried – go lightly as these are concentrated sources of calories). And don’t think it’s best to switch to raw sugar, honey, or agave syrup – it’s still simple sugar.
Read the labels: find the number of grams of sugar per serving and choose lower sugar alternatives. Another caveat: Some studies indicate that even artificially sweetened foods and drinks can still create cravings for sweets.
Step 6: Cut sodium and increase potassium. Nearly one in three American adults has high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure and kidney disease. A diet high in sodium and low in potassium is linked to high blood pressure. Sodium is plentiful in our food supply. Years ago it was used to preserve food, but today we taste it and think low sodium foods are bland. To add some freshness to your food, replace spice blends that are high in salt and sodium with naturally spicy ingredients such as hot peppers or jalapeno peppers (also rich in vitamins and antioxidants) and your spices. salt-free favorites.
Remember to read labels and avoid foods and drinks high in sodium.
Increasing potassium in your diet can also help lower blood pressure. Some of my favorite sources of high potassium (low sodium) are bananas, oranges, potatoes with the skin on, and low sodium V-8 juice.
Step 7: Switch to whole grains. Focus on whole grains for nutrient-dense foods that can lower blood cholesterol and improve regularity. Whole grains are much tastier than refined white breads, cereals, pasta, and rice.
Some of my favorite grains include steel cut oats, kamut, and quinoa. I cook my whole grains in a rice cooker, instant casserole or slow cooker so that I don’t have to watch the cooking which usually takes 45-50 minutes on the stovetop. Many whole grains can be used to make a simple and tasty salad or can be eaten as a hot breakfast cereal with fruits and nuts.
For a quick and tasty hot whole grain cereal, I like old-fashioned oats that are cooked on a high heat for 2 minutes in the microwave and they’re ready to eat. Garnish with dried cranberries and nuts to add sweetness and texture. It’s quick and easy, inexpensive, delicious, filling and healthy too!
Step 8: Reduce stress by taking time for yourself. With a busy schedule, it is essential to take time each day to relax, rejuvenate and rejuvenate! Walking is my time to take a break, get away from everyday stress, and enjoy the fresh air, music, or time to talk to friends and family. Choose something each day that allows you to take time for yourself: yoga, meditation, a hot bath, or whatever helps you recharge your batteries. Allow yourself at least 10 to 15 minutes a day – Yes you can!
Step 9: Include stretches and strength training. Strength training is essential for maintaining muscle mass, strength, and balance as we age. Stretching helps us avoid injury and reduce pain. Strengthening your core will protect you from back pain and injuries, improve your posture, and help you look slimmer – and who doesn’t?
Step 10: Believe You Can Do It. It takes time to develop new healthy habits. Try something that you think you can be successful with and move forward from there. The most important key is to believe that you can make changes that turn into lifelong commitments to your health.
Best wishes for a heart healthy future!