The title is catchy, to grab your attention. Now that I have it, let’s make one thing clear: we should all be looking out for our heart, and all aspects of our health, 12 months a year (and not just this month). I’m not going give you a complicated, expensive protocol that will have you overwhelmed, broke, and giving up in a month’s time. Instead, I’m going to focus on some unobtrusive habits that you can work into your routine without breaking the bank. Now I’m going to debunk my own title again….. this may not be easy. Modern society has gotten so accustomed to unhealthy patterns of eating, drinking, and otherwise going about the day. Even if these patterns are logistically simple to solve, the psychological battle to change the behavior is a force to be reckoned with. Trust me, I know.
I have dedicated six years of my life to going to school to learn about nutrition. Not only that, but I have grown up around and now work in a company that is health oriented. I have all the knowledge and tools I need to make healthy choices, and yet I struggle daily with eating right and exercising! As you read these “easy” pointers, know that the struggle does not make you ignorant or weak, but that we are all only human.
Disclaimer: I may have gotten on a soap-box for a few of these, so feel free to skim. Just make sure to read the subheadings so you don’t miss any main points!
Portions, portions, portions
Variety and moderation. Variety and moderation. The mantra of dietitians and nutritionists everywhere. It may get tiring, but they are right. This first point is all about moderation. Unless you are in the grips of a crippling disease, you can basically eat anything you want, as long as it is in the right amount. I won’t spell out proper portions here, but if you go to the Mayo Clinic website (see link below) you’ll find some helpful resources to help you get started. One personal tip: if you are like me and you know you’ll want seconds no matter what, be smart about it and get only half a portion to start with!
Mayo Clinic. Portion control guide. diet.mayoclinic.org/diet/eat/portion-control-guide
Trim The Fat
While it is true that weight reduction does often go hand in hand with heart health interventions, I speak of “trimming the fat” in the literal sense. There are many healthy fats in our diet. The unsaturated fats found in liquid oils, avocados, fish, and nuts convey a myriad of benefits and support heart health. Saturated fats, on the other hand, are the fats that increase your levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol and may increase your risk of forming harmful plaques in your arteries.
Saturated fats are found in beef, pork, and poultry, to name a few. Most of us these foods are integral to our daily diet and cutting them completely would be a knife to the heart (no pun intended). Instead, start off by just trimming the fat.
When you’re cooking with ground beef, drain off the grease and cook the rest of the meal using a vegetable oil.
- When choosing your pork chops in the store, take home the ones with the least visible fat.
- When you indulge in a steak, enjoy the marbling but trim the excess white from the outer edges before cooking.
- Leave most of the skin on your plate when you are enjoying a nice roasted or rotisserie chicken.
Chicken and turkey are typically much lower in fat and cholesterol than the red meats (beef and pork), so substitute whenever possible. Turkey bacon is seriously not that bad, and I have learned to love my ground turkey!
Employment of these strategies will not only lower your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, but they will also lower calorie intake and support body weight maintenance. That is IF you don’t immediately replace those calories with something else! Be mindful that you don’t strike down one negative habit only to erect another (such as sweets binging).
American Heart Association. Saturated Fat. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats
Work in Some Fiber
Soluble fibers like those found in grains, legumes, and many fruits enhance heart health by lowering cholesterol. How does it work, you ask? Cholesterol is required for production of the bile that is excreted into your intestines to aid in the digestion of food. When the job is done, that bile is typically reabsorbed and used again. When you eat a meal high in soluble fiber, however, the fiber absorbs the bile and carries it out of your body in your… well, you know. This physical loss necessitates the production of new bile in the liver, which then pulls the required cholesterol out of circulation to lower your levels. Now that you understand this awesome function of fiber, try to work it into every meal and snack! It is recommended that women get at least 25 grams of fiber per day and that men get at least 30. Here are some ways to pack fiber into your diet:
- Start the day with oatmeal. One cup (dry measure) of oatmeal packs 5 grams of fiber. Just be sure not to overdo it with the sugar!
- Snack on almonds. Twenty-three of these tasty nuts will deliver 3.5 grams.
- Leave the skin on that baked potato. A medium potato with skin gives you about 4 grams.
- Eat an apple a day. One apple (with skin) is about 4.5 grams.
- Add legumes to your dinner menu. One cups of peas, lentils, or beans has 10-16 grams of fiber. Pair any one of these with rice and you also have a complete protein!
Mayo Clinic. Cholesterol: Top foods to improve your numbers. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/cholesterol/art-20045192
Slow Down on the Salt
First of all, sodium (one of the two compounds in salt) is not the devil; your body could not function without it. Sodium is only harmful when you get too much. Did you know that a baby is born with a full tongue of taste buds, but as you age, they gradually die off? This explains why as you get older you may feel the need to add more salt to your food. The problem is that consuming excess sodium from salt causes extra water to be pulled into the blood stream, increasing the volume of blood and consequently your blood pressure. Instead of putting your heart at risk to season your food, try turning to other herbs and spices that have great flavor and medicinal properties. Garlic and onion powder are some of my go-to’s!
American Heart Association. Get the Scoop on Sodium and Salt. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/sodium-and-salt
Cardiovascular exercise, also known as aerobic exercise, is generally considered a moderate to high intensity physical activity lasting at least 15 minutes. These activities are sustained by oxygen-dependent energy production pathways and increase your breathing and heart rate, leading to a fit, conditioned cardiorespiratory system. It is recommended that adults perform at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio a week, which is typically translated to 30 minutes five days a week. Too much of a time commitment? Ramp up the intensity! Generally speaking, one minute of high-intensity cardio is worth two minutes of moderate-intensity. If you’re not sure where the line is between the two, use the Talk Test: if you can talk but not sing, your exercise is moderate intensity. If you cannot say more than a few words without stopping for a breath, it is high-intensity. If you don’t have time for a 30 minute walk, trade it out for a 15 minute jog!
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services; 2018.
Get. Enough. Sleep.
The CDC reports that more than a third of adults don’t get the recommended seven hours. It is clear to most of us that the amount of sleep we get directly affects our mood and immune function, but what may be less commonly realized is the relationship between a good night sleep and cardiovascular health. I have always known that good sleep is vital to many aspects of health, but recently I learned about nocturnal dipping. Basically, this means that while you sleep, your blood pressure decreases to 10-20% lower than when you are awake. This dipping pattern depends on your daily patterns of activity as well as your internal circadian rhythm, and when these are altered (as with a disturbed sleeping cycle) dipping does not occur as it should. Reduction or absence of dipping has been associated negative heart outcomes, underscoring the importance of both plenty of sleep and the regularity of sleep. Modern life makes it hard to get to bed on time between family, work, and social expectations. Come 11 o’clock you are ready to have some YOU time. But before you click play on yet another episode of your favorite show or turn another page in your favorite book, remember that your heart needs a break too. Close your eyes, pull up the covers, and get to dipping.
Calhoun D, et al. Sleep and Hypertension. Chest. 2010, 138 (2), 434-443.
As you go into February with a little extra “heart” awareness, take these six tips with you and consider how you can make them part of your daily routine. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to perfect them all at once but start with focusing on one every couple of days. Heart health shouldn’t be a fad and it isn’t a diet. Heart health is a lifestyle, and its worth taking time to perfect! My next blog will talk a little bit about the Mediterranean diet and olive leaf, and some of the unique components that makes it a heart champion. In the meantime, show yourself and those close you a little extra appreciation, for this is also the month of Love!
By: Danielle M. Ashley