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Keep Your Heart Healthy

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American men and women alike. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease—but first, you should understand what causes heart disease and what your risks are.

Often, when we talk about heart disease, it refers to the most common type: coronary heart disease (CHD), also called coronary artery disease (CAD). If you have CHD, the arteries that carry blood to your heart become narrow or blocked by plaque buildup. Plaque can be caused by too much fat and cholesterol in the blood, high blood pressure, smoking, or diabetes. When an artery becomes blocked by plaque, it’s hard for blood to flow to your heart. This can cause issues such as chest pain or a heart attack.

Am I at Risk?

Heart disease can affect anyone. However, you may have an increased risk of heart disease if you:

  • Have high cholesterol or high blood pressure
  • Don’t exercise
  • Don’t eat a healthy diet
  • Smoke
  • Are overweight or obese.

Your age and family history also affect your chances of developing heart disease. Your risk is higher if:

  • You’re a woman over 55
  • You’re a man over 45
  • Your father or brother had heart disease before age 55
  • Your mother or sister had heart disease before age 65.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance made by your liver, and it’s also found in certain foods. Your body needs some cholesterol to function correctly, but having too much of the bad type of cholesterol (LDL) puts you at a higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke. If there’s too much cholesterol in your bloodstream, it can build up in your blood vessels and cause blockages. These blockages can reduce blood flow to your heart, increasing your risk for heart attack, and reduce blood flow to your brain, increasing your risk for a stroke.

Cholesterol consists of:

  • Low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol that blocks blood vessels. Your LDL number should be less than 100, or less than 70 if you have coronary artery disease.
  • High-density lipoproteins (HDL), the “good” cholesterol that helps protect you from heart disease. An ideal number for HDL is 60; 40 or higher for men and 50 or higher for women is acceptable.
  • Triglycerides, another type of fat that builds up in the body that is considered a cholesterol “building block.” An ideal triglyceride number is less than 100.

The steps you can take to lower cholesterol levels are similar to the steps you can take to improve heart health: eat a heart-healthy diet, exercise regularly, eat more soluble fiber, eliminate trans fats, quit smoking, maintain a healthy weight, and don’t drink alcohol in excess.

Take Steps Toward Better Heart Health

Not only is exercise good for the heart, but a lack of exercise is a risk factor for developing heart disease. One of the best ways to show your heart some love is to take steps against heart disease—literally.

If you haven’t been active for a while, you might want to start slowly and work your way up to these goals. In general, you should aim for at least:

  • 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise, like walking at a brisk pace
  • 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, like running
  • Two or more strength training sessions per week

A Heart-Healthy Diet

Making simple changes in your diet can go a long way in reducing cholesterol and blood pressure and, in turn, help prevent heart disease. Consider these healthy eating tips for a healthier heart.

First, let’s talk about portion size. The amount you eat is just as important as what you eat—when you overload your plate, take seconds, and eat until you feel stuffed, you’re probably consuming more calories than you should. Start using smaller plates and bowls to control your portions and keep track of how many servings you eat. Eat larger portions of low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods and much smaller portions of high-calorie, high-sodium foods.

Don’t underestimate the power of fruits and veggies, which are a good source of vitamins and minerals. They also contain substances that may help prevent heart disease. Additionally, eating more fruits and vegetables can help fill you up, so you eat fewer unhealthy foods.

Go for whole grains, which are a good source of fiber and other nutrients that help regulate blood pressure and heart health. Start your whole grain journey by swapping out white bread for whole wheat, and refined cereals for oatmeal or high-fiber cereal.

Limit unhealthy fats in your diet, like saturated and trans fats. The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 5 to 6 percent of your daily caloric intake in saturated fats and avoiding trans fats altogether. Reduce saturated fats by trimming fat off the meat you eat or choose meats with less than 10 percent fat. When you do use fat, choose monounsaturated fats like olive oil or canola oil, or polyunsaturated fats, like those found in fish, nuts, and seeds.

Don’t be salty. Eating a lot of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, which can increase your risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults shouldn’t have more than 2,300 milligrams of salt each day—approximately the equivalent of a teaspoon. Know that much of the sodium you eat comes from canned or processed foods, like soups, baked goods, and frozen dinners. When possible, make your own meals so you can control sodium levels. And when buying pre-made foods, choose reduced-sodium options.

As a physician trained in Internal Medicine and Obesity Medicine, Dr. Kristen Conley is often asked, “What’s the secret recipe for losing weight?” Her answer, though, isn’t so simple. According to Conley, it’s difficult to determine which diet advice to follow when there is so much information and misinformation. However, she encourages her patients to incorporate the “best of everything” when it comes to eating habits.

“By ‘best of everything,’ that means taking some elements of a variety of types of foods that provide nutritional value,” Conley says. “I stress a plant-rich diet, high fiber, and non-starchy vegetables.”

Under Conley’s advice, fruits are welcome, but you should give preference to those that have a low glycemic index and are rich in antioxidants, like berries. She also encourages getting healthy fats from sources like nuts, avocados, seeds, and fish.

“The foods we eat daily have an immediate impact on our brain health and how we age, in addition to our heart health,” Conley says.

So, how does Conley recommend starting the process of healthier eating? Start by taking stock of your current habits. What are you eating daily? What are your portion sizes? A food log is the best way to assess this.

“Taking an honest, detailed look at your food and beverage intake and sharing this with your physician or dietitian will help us assist you in your journey and guide you to shape your meals,” Conley says. “As you change these smaller habits, little by little, the larger lifestyle changes will be easier to accomplish.”

Need more advice on taking better care of your heart? Frederick Health is here to help. Contact us today to get exceptional heart care.