From My Heart to Yours: Heart disease remains the number one killer in the U.S. Please consider renewing your commitment to heart healthy habits for heart month and beyond.
Knowing that heart disease affects so many people in the U.S., I'm sure many of you can relate to my story. My dad had heart disease from the time I was 3 years old and died as a result just 10 years later. A cherished uncle followed, and then another uncle (my dad's brothers). My mom had a heart attack at 80 years of age, which was the beginning of her health decline. Then recently, I was challenged with a heart arrhythmia myself. I was fortunate to have great care at the Cleveland Clinic where an ablation procedure cured my symptoms – but I am still careful to follow lifestyle habits to avoid future issues.
I'm also hitting a milestone birthday this month, and my health is at the center of my thoughts. Granted I can't do anything about genetics or age as risk factors, but there is a lot I can do! Just because I'm a registered dietitian nutritionist, doesn't mean that I'm immune to health issues – or bad habits for that matter! The last few years have been challenging between caring for our elderly parents and recovering from my own heart issue. But now that things have calmed down a bit, I'm committed to making more heart-healthy changes. For me, it isn't all 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 of them into my regular routine. Steps are in no particular order. Don't worry about making all the changes at once – just choose one step that you believe you can stick with, and go from there.
A few essentials: If you smoke, stop! Find a good program for smoking cessation. Know your numbers: Manage your weight, cholesterol, LDL, as well as hypertension and blood glucose if you have diabetes. Find a way to stay active. Follow a plant based diet, and follow doctor's orders for prescribed medications. Some of the steps below can help you get started.
Step 1: Increase your physical activity! Exercising lowers blood pressure, strengthens your heart, helps maintain lean body mass, burns calories, and makes you feel good! Walking is one of the easiest exercises to fit into your day. Experts encourage a minimum of 10,000 steps a day (equivalent to 5 miles) – and yes, it's possible to fit this into a busy schedule. If you are just getting started, walk at least 10 minutes at a time. Work your way up gradually to a minimum of 60 minutes on most days to meet the recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
Before you make changes to your routine, check with your doctor. Once you get the OK, use a fitness tracker or pedometer to count the current number of steps you take per day to use as your starting point. I've been wearing a pedometer or Fitbit for more than 10 years to help me stay on target. I love the feature on my Fitbit that reminds me to do a minimum of 250 steps every hour! I no longer sit at my computer working for hours on end without moving.
Step 2: Cut back on high calorie beverages. Do you drink sugar sweetened beverages every day? Just 8 ounces of most sugary beverages packs a whopping 100 calories, and most people don't stop at 8 ounces. An extra 100 calories a day adds up to 3500 extra calories in just 5 weeks – which could mean an extra pound of weight – or 10 extra pounds in a year!
What about alcohol? Has that “healthy” 100 calorie daily glass of wine turned into 2 or more glasses a day? Alcohol calories go down quickly, and they can also loosen your resolve to control your food intake.
Eliminate sugary beverages and alcohol for at least 30 days to break the habit. Replace them with unsweetened beverages such as water, sparkling water, diffused water (lemons, limes, cucumbers or fruit), hot or iced tea.
Step 3: Cut the saturated fat. Animal fats found in meats, poultry, full fat 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 visible fat from meat, remove skin from poultry, prepare foods using low fat cooking methods (baking, broiling, roasting), and read labels to identify foods with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat for better health. Skim or 1% milk, low fat cheese and sour cream, low fat yogurt, and other low fat dairy options are available – and many of them taste good!
Ready to use spray cans of healthy oils found at the grocery store can help control the amount of fat you use. Choose a healthy corn, safflower or olive oil to spray on foods so you can bake instead of frying or brushing foods with oil.
Step 4: Eat your veggies 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 high in vitamins C, A, potassium, antioxidants, phytochemicals; and are naturally low in fat and sodium.
Fill at least half your plate with vegetables, and reach for fresh fruit for dessert or snacks.
Step 5: Reduce the sugar. I've always had a sweet tooth, but I've cut back on sweets to improve my health and manage my weight. Most of us consume much more sugar than we realize. It lurks in juices, jellies, jams, cookies, candies, cakes, pies, regular soda pop, cereals, snack bars, condiments, and many other foods.
Start with obvious sources of sugar and switch to naturally sweet foods like fruits (fresh, canned without syrup, frozen without sugar, or dried – go lightly here as these are concentrated sources of calories). And don't think switching to raw sugar, honey or agave syrup is better – it's still simple sugar.
Read labels: look for the number of grams of sugar per serving and choose alternatives that are lower in sugar. One more caution: some studies indicate that even artificially sweetened foods and beverages may still create cravings for sweets.
Step 6: Cut the sodium and increase the potassium. Almost 1 in 3 American adults have high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease. A high sodium, low potassium diet is linked to high blood pressure. Sodium is abundant in our food supply. Years ago it was used to preserve foods, but today we have a taste for it and think lower-sodium foods are bland. To add some zip to your foods, replace salt and high sodium spice mixes with naturally spicy ingredients such as hot peppers or jalapeno peppers (also high in vitamins and antioxidants), and your favorite salt-free spices.
Remember to read labels and avoid foods and beverages that are high in sodium.
Increasing potassium in your diet can also help lower blood pressure. Bananas, oranges, potatoes with skins, and low sodium V-8 juice are some of my favorite high potassium (low sodium) sources.
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, pastas, and rice.
Some of my favorite grains include steel cut oats, kamut and quinoa. I cook my whole grains in a rice cooker, Instant Pot or a crock pot so I don't have to monitor the cooking which usually takes 45-50 minutes on the stovetop. Many whole grains can be used to make a simple, tasty salad or can be eaten as a hot breakfast cereal with fruit and nuts.
For quick and tasty whole grain hot cereal, I like old fashioned oats cooked on high for 2 minutes in the microwave and it's ready to eat. Top it with some dried cranberries and walnuts to add sweetness and texture. It's quick and easy, inexpensive, tastes great, filling – and healthy too!
Step 8: Reduce stress by taking time for yourself. With a busy schedule, it's essential to take time out each day to relax, renew, and reenergize! Walking is my time to take a break, step away from daily stresses and enjoy some fresh air, music, or time to talk to friends and family. Choose something every day that allows you to take time to yourself: yoga, meditation, a hot bath, or anything that helps you recharge. Allow yourself at least 10-15 minutes a day – Yes, you can!
Step 9: Include some stretching and strength training. Strength training is essential for maintaining muscle mass, strength, and balance as we age. Stretching helps us to avoid injury and reduce pain. Strengthening your core will protect you from back pain and injuries, improve posture and help you look thinner – and who doesn't want that?
Step 10: Believe you can do it. It takes time to develop new healthy habits. Try one thing that you believe you can be successful with, and move forward from there. The most important key is to believe that you can make changes that become lifelong commitments for your health.
Best wishes for a heart-healthy future!