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. More women die from heart disease than the next 16 causes of death combined – including all types of cancers. (500,000 women die each year from heart disease compared to 40,000 from breast cancer.) 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 Age-Proof Your Body, for most people this disease is entirely preventable or at least slowed with just a few simple changes in what we eat and how much we move.
1. What is the most important habit people can adopt to lower their risk for heart disease?
Preventing heart disease is a three-tiered job that includes diet, exercise, and healthy lifestyle practices. All three impact the number one most important thing you can do to save your heart: maintain a healthy weight! Even a few extra pounds, if they are packed around the middle, will increase your heart-disease risk, while losing weight lowers blood cholesterol levels by up to 30 points or more, which equates to a 60% reduction in heart disease risk.
2. That means cutting calories. Does it matter how we cut calories or are all calories created equal?
You can slim your waistline AND protect your heart by cutting calories from saturated fat, trans fats, refined grains, and sugar. That means cutting back on red meat, dark poultry meat, cheese, whole dairy products, and anything with trans fats in it from margarine and shortening to anything made with hydrogenated vegetable oils, such as crackers, cookies, pie crusts, or other processed foods. Read labels and steer clear of anything with hydrogenated vegetable oils, palm oil, or coconut oils. Also, cut back on processed grains in crackers, cookies, etc. When it comes to sugar, again read labels. Anything with sugar in the first three ingredients or with multiple sugars in the ingredient list (such as high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, honey, corn syrup, etc) should be put back on the shelf. Cut out the sugar in your diet and you could easily lose several pounds a month.
3. You say there are 4 facts of heart health. What are they?
Your diet, exercise, and lifestyle should aim to:
a. Lower your blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, while keeping your “good” cholesterol, called HDL cholesterol in the healthy range.
b. Keep your blood pressure at 120/80 to avoid hypertension.
c. 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.
d. 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.
4. Some fats are good for us, right? What are they?
As you eliminate butter, margarine, and other fats in your diet, it’s OK to use a little olive oil, which helps lower blood fats. But, don’t go overboard; all fats, whether they are lard or olive oil, contain the same calories or about 100 calories a tablespoon. Too much of any fat will pack on the pounds - and that is the #1 risk factor for heart disease.
Use extra olive oil for salad dressings or to drizzle over cooked vegetables just before serving. Use plain olive oil for sauteeing and cooking, and use “light” olive oil for baking. By the way, the word “light” on an olive oil bottle does not mean it contains less calories. It only means it is lighter in taste. All olive oils have the same monounsaturated fats and calories.
5. Other foods have healthy fats, too. Like nuts.
Nuts are rich in the same types of fats as olive oil, the monounsaturated fats. So it’s no surprise that the research repeatedly shows that people who include an ounce of nuts several times a week in their diets have a lower blood cholesterol and risk for heart disease. What is surprising is the research showing that people who include nuts - and they can be almonds, cashews, peanuts, or even macadamia or pistachio nuts - also have an easier time losing weight and maintaining the weight loss, even though nuts are high-calorie foods. It’s probably because they don’t feel so deprived and have an easier time sticking with their diets. Again, you can’t take this as a license to binge. An ounce of any nut, which is about 10 to 15 nuts depending on the size, supplies about 170 calories. It’s easy to pack on the pounds if you eat too many!
6. We all know that fruits and vegetables are good for us. But are some more equal than others? Diets rich in colorful produce not only lower heart disease risk, but help people manage their waistlines, lower their risk for hypertension and diabetes, and reduce markers for inflammation associated with heart disease, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and homocysteine. Partly it is because colorful produce is Mother Nature’s best source of antioxidants that protect arteries from damage associated with inflammation, making them more resistant to atherosclerosis. Also, dark-green vegetables, such as spinach and chard or broccoli are rich in folate, a B vitamin that lowers levels of homocysteine, a compound that when it is high, even if your cholesterol levels are low, can place you at increased risk for heart disease. One study found that heart-disease risk dropped by up to 22% when people included at least one serving daily of leafy greens. Produce, such as oranges, also is rich in a type of fiber, called soluble fiber, that lowers cholesterol levels. And that’s just the tip of the nutritional iceberg. We’re likely to find many more reasons why produce is so good for our arteries and hearts in the future. Finally, colorful produce fills us up before it fills us out, so we eat less calories and have an easier time managing our weights.
That said. Yes, some produce appears better than others. Always choose the darkest produce. Choose spinach over iceberg lettuce. Sweet potatoes instead of baked potatoes. Orange juice instead of apple juice. In addition, tomatoes are rich in a compound called lycopene that helps lower heart disease risk in women. Canned tomatoes are even better than fresh and vine-ripened tomatoes are better than tomatoes picked green and allowed to ripen later. Aim for 8 to 10 servings a day or at least 2 at every meal and 1 at every snack. That’s as easy as a sliced banana on your cereal and a glass of OJ at breakfast, 2 cups of spinach on a salad along with a turkey sandwich at lunch, and a heaping pile of green peas along with a baked sweet potato at dinner. Then snack on a mango or kiwi or orange during the day and you will meet your goal, have an easier time managing your weight, and lower your risk for not only heart disease, but cancer, diabetes, memory loss, and more!
7. What about alcohol. I hear that’s heart healthy, too.
The best alcoholic beverage you can drink is red wine. It’s loaded with antioxidants and phytochemicals, such as resveratrol, ergothioinine, and polyphenols that lower heart disease risk. These compounds prevent the bad cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, from being damaged by oxygen fragments. Damaged LDLs are most prone to sticking to artery walls, contributing to the development of atherosclerosis and heart disease. The antioxidants in wine prevent this reaction. Just like oxygen in air causes iron to rust, oxygen fragments, called free radicals, play havoc with tissues. Phenols and other compounds in wine interrupt this deadly reaction. Wine and its antioxidants also might lower the risk for dementia and macular degeneration, a major cause of vision loss, and might even extend life.
Resveratrol in red wine is especially good for you. It blocks cancer-causing substances, which encourage cells to mutate, and appears to stop already mutated cells from becoming cancerous, possibly by turning off tumor-stimulating enzymes. In addition, mutated cells already multiplying uncontrollably can be corralled and controlled by resveratrol.
8. All we have heard for years now is that carbs are bad for us. What about carbs when it comes to heart disease? Just like there are good and bad fats, there also are good and bad carbs. While refined grains - that is the carbs you get in any processed baked good, from white bread, white rice, and regular pasta to muffins, croissants, bagels, and white flour tortillas - can increase heart disease risk if consumed in excess. In contrast, whole grains help lower risk and help you manage your waistline, help control blood sugar in the prevention of diabetes, help lower blood pressure, and even certain forms of cancer. According to researchers at Harvard Medical School in Boston, a comparison of heart disease risk and whole grain consumption in 75,521 women in the Nurses’ Health Study found that as whole grain consumption increased, heart-disease risk decreased. Those women who consume the most whole grains every day lowered their risk by 33%. Risk reduction was even stronger in women who had never smoked (51%). Currently, the average American consumes up to 12 servings of grain a day, but less than one serving is whole grain. Cut way back on the platters of pasta and muffins the size of small cakes and include at least whole grains every day. That’s as easy as having a bowl of whole grain cereal in the morning, your lunchtime sandwich on whole wheat bread, and instant brown rice at dinner.