February 19, 2013

Heart Healthy Lifestyle

Dark chocolate!  Lycopene in tomatoes!  Antioxidants in red wine!  February is American Heart Health Month accompanied conveniently by Valentine’s Day which helps tie it all together because so many “romantic” foods are also beneficial for your cardiovascular system.  However, I cannot help but observe that once again our society is drawn to single-agent cures for an incredibly complex topic.  Eating some of these foods in moderation have been shown to improve heart health but when we combine beneficial foods and lifestyle habits that are supportive of cardiovascular health, we can begin to focus more on the big picture.

Heart health is important and does deserve a month of recognition as it continues to be the statistically number one killer of American men and women.  According to the CDC, 715,000 Americans have a heart attack each year while 600,000 people die from heart disease (1 out of every 4 deaths).  Eat your fish oil, dark chocolate, red wine and tomato sauce, but also take into consideration the following less romantic sounding advice:

There are so many “heart healthy” lists.  Take the time to notice which compounds show up on every one time and time again.  Here is a list from this year including their potential cardiovascular benefits:
  1. Oatmeal:  *beta-glucans, fiber                                                                                              *complex plant structures found in the cell walls of some bacteria, yeast, fungi, and cereal bran, beta-glucans might lower blood cholesterol by preventing the absorption of cholesterol from food in the stomach and intestines. 
  2. Salmon: omega 3, vitamin D
  3. Broccoli:  antioxidants (flavonoids and detoxification support)
  4. Nuts: unsaturated fat, fiber, antioxidants
  5. Avocado: monounsaturated fat and antioxidants
  6. Cantaloupe: antioxidants (in the form of carotenoids) and fiber
  7. Red wine: *resveretrol (antioxidant)                                                                                           *resveratrol and proanthocyanidins found in grapes and wine play role in protecting our hearts by stopping the oxidation of  LDL (bad cholesterol) and decreasing the stickiness of blood. 
  8. Olive oil: monounsaturated fats and antioxidants
  9. Dark chocolate:   antioxidants                                                                                             *flavonoids like these are also found in green and black teas, cherries, apples, red grapes and other deeply colored fruits and vegetables.
  10. Tomatoes: *lycopene (antioxidant of the carotenoid family)                                                      *lycopene does not get converted to vitamin A like other carotenoids and so it can uniquely quench the free radical “singlet oxygen” found in cell membranes which in turn minimizes cell damage and leads to a healthy heart and cancer protection. 
When you see these lists of heart healthy foods, trends start to emerge of which are supportive of the cardiovascular system.  Over and over again: antioxidants in the form of plant-chemicals (especially vitamin E and beta-carotene), fiber, healthy unsaturated fats.  There is no single food, no single supplement or no single pill that will equate heart health.  Instead, we need to focus on a healthy lifestyle.   Beyond diet alone, there are many other lifestyle factors that can help achieve heart-healthy status:

Maintain a healthy weight
Eating whole, unprocessed foods may help control weight when consumed in moderation.  Besides that:

Exercise regularly
Physical activity can help maintain a healthy weight and could lower cholesterol and blood pressure.  The Surgeon General recommends adults engage in moderate-intensity physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes on most days of the week (that means 5-7).

Control your blood pressure
Ideal: 120/80.   Note that excess alcohol consumption can also increase blood pressure.   Additionally, the American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium to less than 1500 mg per day.  Managing your stress is another important part of maintaining appropriate blood pressure levels.

Don't smoke
Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease.

Track your cholesterol
You should get your cholesterol levels checked at least once every five years. Request this test at your next visit and track it over time to watch for trends and the need for intervention through lifestyle or medication.  

Manage your diabetes
Diabetics are at increased risk for heart disease.  If you have diabetes, monitor your blood sugar levels closely and keep open communication with your health care provider about heart health.

Take your medicine
If you're taking medication to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, follow your provider’s instructions carefully. Always ask questions if you don't understand something and take your medications as prescribed every day. 


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