February is American Heart Month. Heart disease is the number one killer disease in the United States. Almost one in every two men and women will die from this disease. If that's not a wake-up call, how about the fact that heart disease often progresses undetected; 63% of women have no signs of heart disease until they have a fatal heart attack! The good news is that, according to Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness, for most people this disease is entirely preventable or at least slowed if we take care of the key 5 factors for heart health. You need to:
- Lower your blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, while keeping your "good" cholesterol, called HDL cholesterol in the healthy range. Maintaining a healthy weight, boosting intake of soluble fibers from oats and fruit, and cutting back on foods high in saturated and trans fats, including red meat, fatty dairy products, and any processed food with hydrogenated vegetable oil in the ingredient list will take care of this.
- Keep your blood pressure at 120/80 to avoid hypertension. Accomplishing this takes weight loss and lowering intake of salt while increasing intake of potassium-rich foods, such as bananas, watermelon, and carrots. Start checking labels and choose foods with no more than 100mg of sodium for every 100 calories. The American Heart Association's Heart Check Mark also is a sign a processed food, such as canned soups or frozen entrees, are lower in sodium than the competition. Aim for no more than the upper daily limit of 2300mg of sodium a day.
- Improve blood flow. That means keeping your circulation in tip top condition so that blood clots or constricted arteries don't lead to heart attack or stroke. Daily exercise is a must, plus adding foods or supplements that improve blood flow, such as ones that include Fruitflow, that contains 30 natural compounds found in tomato extracts and has been shown to improve blood flow for up to 12 hours after ingestion. Watermelon also is good for blood flow, since it contains two compounds, citrulline and arginine, amino acids that maintain blood vessels, increase nitric oxide, and improve blood flow to all tissues. Along with enjoying a bowlful of watermelon chunks, make salsas with watermelon, add this fruit to smoothies, add a slice to sandwiches in place of mayo, or freeze blended and sweetened watermelon for a healthy sorbet.
- Avoid inflammation in your blood vessels associated with the development of plaque that constricts blood vessels leading to the underlying cause of heart disease - atherosclerosis. While acute inflammation works great for healing a cut finger or a bumped head, too much of a good thing leads to problems. In other words, chronic inflammation damages, rather than repairs tissues. When inflammation is too intense or prolonged it damages arteries leading to heart disease or dementia, or inflames tissues leading to cancer, diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis (arthritis literally means "inflammation of the joint.") Some foods escalate the inflammatory process, including saturated fats, refined grains, sugar, and processed meats that contain nitrites. The anti-inflammatory diet, in contrast, prevents this damage and is one heaped with colorful fruits and vegetables, along with other real foods, such as 100% whole grains, nuts, legumes, and omega-3-rich salmon.
- Slim your waistline. I've saved the most important for last. People who pack excess body fat, especially around the middle, are at highest risk for elevated blood fats, blood pressure, and inflammation. They also are more likely to have compromised blood flow. I cannot emphasize more the importance of maintaining a fit, lean body. A recent study found that even if your blood pressure and blood fats are normal. Even if you have no signs of diabetes, you still are a high risk for an early death if you are overweight.
The heart-healthy diet starts with colorful fruits and vegetables, is rich in 100% whole grains, gets some of it's protein and much of its fiber from legumes and nuts, and has a dusting of extra lean meats and low-fat milk products.
- For Breakfast: Oatmeal has those soluble fibers that will help keep blood fats in check. Cook it in low-fat milk and serve with blueberries, which are high in antioxidants to lower inflammation. This breakfast also will fill you up without filling you out, so it will help with weight-loss efforts.
- For Lunch: A bean and low-fat cheese burrito with salsa on a whole-grain tortilla. Serve with a big bowl of watermelon chunks, which have those 2 compounds that help with blood flow, and a carton of low-fat milk, preferably one fortified with omega-3 fats that help lower blood fats and reduce inflammation.
- For Dinner: A lean chicken breast served with a whole grain like quinoa that helps lower inflammation, blood sugar and blood fat levels. Add two servings of a colorful vegetable, like broccoli or a spinach salad to further lower inflammation, boost potassium intake, and fill you up on fewer calories.
- Snacks: Low-fat plain yogurts, fruits, baby carrots, hummus, etc.
- Supplements: Take a moderate-dose multi, an omega-3, extra vitamin D.
And one last thing-- daily exercise is a must for not just losing weight, but maintaining the loss, also lowering blood fats, blood pressure, and inflammation, as well as improving blood flow. Look at it this way. It's not that exercise is good for us, it's that our bodies were designed to move and when we don't exercise, that's when the system breaks down. Strap on a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day!