Healthy changes for heart month
From my heart to yours: Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the US Consider renewing your commitment to heart-healthy habits during Heart Month and beyond.
Knowing that heart disease affects so many people in the United States, I am sure that many of you can relate to my story. My dad had heart disease since I was 3 years old and died as a result only 10 years later. A dear uncle followed him, and then another uncle (my dad’s brothers). My mother had a heart attack at age 80, which was the beginning of her deteriorating health. Then recently I was challenged with a cardiac 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 problems.
I am also meeting a milestone this month and my health is at the center of my thoughts. Okay, I can’t do anything about genetics or age as risk factors, but there is a lot I can do! Just because you’re a registered dietitian nutritionist doesn’t mean you’re immune to health problems – or bad habits for that matter! The last few years have been a challenge between taking care of our elderly parents and recovering from my own heart problem. But now that things have settled down a bit, I’m committed to making more heart-healthy changes. For me, it’s not just 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 adding more to my regular routine. The steps are in no particular order. Don’t worry about making all your changes at once, just pick a step that you think you can follow and go from there.
Some essential elements: If you smoke, stop it! Find a good smoking cessation program. Know Your Numbers – Check 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 your doctor’s directions for prescription medications. Some of the steps below can help you get started.
Step 1: Increase your physical activity! Exercise 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 incorporate into your day. Experts recommend a minimum of 10,000 steps per day (equivalent to 5 miles), and yes, it is possible to fit this into a busy schedule. If you’re just starting out, walk for at least 10 minutes at a time. Gradually increase to a minimum of 60 minutes on most days to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommendations.
Before making changes to your routine, check with your doctor. Once you get the go-ahead, use a fitness tracker or pedometer to count the current number of steps you take per day to use as a starting point. I’ve been using a pedometer or Fitbit for over 10 years to help me stay on target. I love the feature on my Fitbit that reminds me to take a minimum of 250 steps every hour! I no longer sit in front of my computer working for hours without moving.
Step 2: Cut back on high calorie drinks. Do you drink sugary drinks every day? Just 8 ounces of most sugary drinks contain a whopping 100 calories, and most people don’t stop at 8 ounces. An extra 100 calories a day adds up to an extra 3,500 calories in just 5 weeks, which could mean an extra pound of weight or an extra 10 pounds in a year!
What about alcohol? Has that 100 calorie a day glass of “healthy” wine turned into 2 or more glasses a day? The calories from alcohol drop rapidly and can also loosen your resolve to control your food intake.
Cut out sugary drinks 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, whole dairy products (milk, cheese, sour cream, yogurt, etc.), salad dressings, and fried foods are full of saturated fats, which have been linked to heart disease. Reduce portions, trim visible fat from meat, remove skin from poultry, prepare foods using low-fat cooking methods (baking, broiling, broiling), and read labels to identify foods with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats 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 aerosol 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 drizzle your food so you can bake rather than fry or brush your food with oil.
Step 4: Eat your vegetables and fruits! Eat a variety of colors: green, red, orange, yellow vegetables and fruits that contain essential nutrients and fiber for good health. These foods are rich in vitamins C, A, potassium, antioxidants, phytochemicals; and they are naturally low in fat and sodium.
Fill at least half your plate with vegetables and look for fresh fruit for dessert or snacks.
Step 5: Reduce the sugar. I have always had a sweet tooth, but I have stopped consuming them to improve my health and control my weight. Most of us consume much more sugar than we realize. It hides in juices, jellies, jams, cookies, candy, cakes, pies, sodas, 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 it’s better to switch to raw sugar, honey, or agave syrup, it’s still simple sugar.
Read the labels – find the number of grams of sugar per serving and choose alternatives that are lower in sugar. One more caveat: Some studies indicate that even artificially sweetened foods and drinks can create sweet cravings.
Step 6: Cut the sodium and increase the potassium. Nearly 1 in 3 American adults has high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease. A diet high in sodium and low in potassium is linked to high blood pressure. Sodium is abundant in our food supply. Years ago it was used to preserve food, but today we like and believe that low sodium foods are tasteless. To add some flavor to your food, replace salt and high-sodium spice mixes with naturally spicy ingredients like hot peppers or jalapeno peppers (also rich in vitamins and antioxidants) and your favorite unsalted spices.
Remember to read labels and avoid foods and drinks that are high in sodium.
Increasing potassium in your diet can also help lower blood pressure. Bananas, oranges, peeled potatoes, 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, pasta, and rice.
Some of my favorite grains are steel cut oats, kamut, and quinoa. I cook my whole grains in a rice cooker, Instant Pot, or crock pot so I don’t have to monitor cooking, which usually takes 45-50 minutes on the stovetop. Many whole grains can be used to make a simple and tasty salad or eaten as a hot breakfast cereal with fruits and nuts.
For a quick and tasty hot whole grain cereal, I like old-fashioned oatmeal cooked over high heat 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 delicious, satiating, and healthy too.
Step 8: Reduce stress by taking time for yourself. With a busy schedule, it is essential to take time each day to relax, renew, and re-energize. Walking is my time to take a break, get away from daily stress, and enjoy fresh air, music, or time to talk with friends and family. Choose something every day that allows you to take time for yourself: yoga, meditation, a hot bath, or anything that helps you recharge. Allow yourself at least 10-15 minutes a day. Yes, it 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 avoid injury and reduce pain. Strengthening your core will protect you from back pain and injury, improve posture, and help you look slimmer, and who doesn’t want that?
Step 10: Believe you can do it. It takes time to develop new healthy habits. Try something you think you can be successful with and move on from there. The most important key is believing that you can make changes that become life-long commitments to your health.
Best wishes for a heart healthy future!