Putting Your Heart Health First

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No matter your age, heart health is something we should all take very seriously. February is Heart Health Month, a time to raise awareness about heart disease as the leading cause of death for both men and women in America. Whether or not you have heart disease, it’s critical that you prioritize taking care of your heart now.

Family history does play a role in increasing your risk of coronary artery disease, but there are countless other risk factors that you can take control of in your life. For example, smoking constricts your blood vessels and can damage their inner lining, making them more susceptible to atherosclerosis. A diet high in fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol can also contribute to heart disease. High blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity and lack of physical activity all contribute to the development of heart disease.

The basics of following a heart-healthy diet include consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean poultry and fish, nuts, legumes and non-tropical vegetable oils. Limiting saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat and sweets are also crucial when trying to optimize your heart health. There are a few key heart-healthy foods and strategies that you should start implementing today to make a lasting lifestyle change.

Get An Oil Change

You are what you eat! Have you ever looked at the nutrition labels of the food in your pantry? Better yet, have you taken a look at the nutrition facts of items you order at restaurants or fast food establishments? Many processed foods are laden with saturated and trans fat. Get an “oil change” by choosing monounsaturated (olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (certain fish, avocados, nuts and seeds). One of my favorite healthy fats is ground flaxseeds; high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, these make a great addition to yogurt or oatmeal in the morning. When used in place of saturated fat, healthier fats can help reduce your blood cholesterol levels. Moderation is essential, as all fats are high in calories. Purchase an oil sprayer and fill it with olive oil; instead of dousing food in oil, spraying with olive oil ensures flavor while instilling portion control.

Cut Your Sugar

A study published in JAMA: Internal Medicine in April 2014 found that consuming too much added sugar could significantly increase your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Most U.S. adults consume about 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, according to the study—yikes. The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of added sugar a day; however, added sugar should really be kept to a minimum in the diet. Watching your sugar intake is a significant part of living a heart-healthy life, especially if you have diabetes. Desserts, sugary drinks and candy are full of empty calories that can lead to weight gain and spikes in blood glucose levels when eaten in excess. The less you consume sugar, the less you’ll crave it. Start by choosing fruit instead of added sugar; add fresh berries to oatmeal in the morning instead of sugar or artificial sweeteners. Try using cinnamon, ginger, allspice and nutmeg instead of sugar. Swap soda for naturally flavored seltzer.

Watch For Hidden Salt

Sodium is a vital nutrient for the body, but too much can contribute to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Much of the salt in our diets comes from processed and canned foods. Soups and frozen dinners are typically major offenders, as these are laden with excess salt and preservatives. Try eating fresh food and looking for reduced-sodium or low-sodium options. Since salt is hidden in a variety of foods, take that salt shaker and keep it tucked away in the pantry.

Limit Condiments Or Choose Reduced-Sodium Versions

Try flavoring foods with herbs and spices instead of salt; my favorite seasoning is the 21 Seasoning Salute from Trader Joe’s.

Move For 10 Minutes

If you rarely exercise, it can be intimidating to start a fitness routine. We’ve built up this myth that only a regular, strenuous exercise program will make a difference in your weight and heart health. However, even a 10-minute walk is better than sitting on the couch. Exercise is still worth doing, even if you have limited time. Break up your exercise goal into 10- to 15-minute increments, which takes away the intimidation factor. Try jogging for 10 minutes in the morning, then walking for 10 minutes during your lunch break, and then doing 10 minutes of yoga in the evening. Small changes can lead to big results.

Stefani Pappas, RDN, CDN, CPT, is a clinical dietitian nutritionist at St. Francis Hospital. She also provides private and group nutrition counseling at her office in Great Neck. Visit www.StefHealthTips.com for more information.

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