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Healthy Changes for Heart Month
From My Heart to Yours: Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States. Please consider renewing your commitment to heart-healthy habits for Heart Month and beyond.
Knowing that heart disease affects so many people in the United States, I’m sure many of you can relate to my story. My father had heart disease since he was 3 years old and died of it 10 years later. A cherished uncle followed, then another uncle (my father’s brothers). My mother had a heart attack at the age of 80, which marked the beginning of the decline in her health. Then recently, I myself was confronted with a cardiac arrhythmia. I was lucky to have good care at the Cleveland Clinic where an ablation procedure cured my symptoms – but I’m still careful to follow lifestyle habits to avoid future problems.
I am also celebrating a milestone birthday this month, and my health is at the center of my thoughts. Granted, I can’t do anything about genetics or age as risk factors, but I can do a lot! Just because I’m a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist doesn’t mean I’m immune to health issues – or bad habits for that matter! The last few years have been difficult between taking care of our elderly parents and recovering from my own heart problem. But now that things have calmed 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 described below, and now I’ve added more to my usual routine. The steps are in no particular order. Don’t worry about making all the changes at once – just pick a step you think you can stick to and go from there.
A few essentials: If you smoke, quit! Find a good program to quit smoking. Know your numbers: Manage your weight, cholesterol, LDL, as well as your blood pressure and blood sugar if you have diabetes. Find a way to stay active. Follow a plant-based diet and follow doctor’s orders for prescribed medications. Some of the steps below may 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 great! Walking is one of the easiest exercises to incorporate into your day. Experts encourage a minimum of 10,000 steps per day (equivalent to 5 miles) — and yes, it’s possible to fit that into a busy schedule. If you’re just starting out, walk at least 10 minutes at a time. Work your way up to a minimum of 60 minutes most days to meet Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommendations.
Before changing your routine, consult your doctor. Once you get the OK, 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 worn a pedometer or a Fitbit for over 10 years to help me stay focused. I love the feature on my Fitbit that reminds me to take a minimum of 250 steps every hour! I no longer sit at my computer working for hours without moving.
Step 2: Cut down on high calorie drinks. Do you drink sugary drinks every day? Only 8 ounces of most sugary drinks contain 100 calories, and most people don’t stop at 8 ounces. 100 extra calories a day adds up to 3500 extra calories in just 5 weeks – which could mean an extra pound of weight – or 10 extra pounds in a year!
What about alcohol? Did that daily “healthy” 100 calorie glass of wine turn into 2 or more glasses a day? The calories from alcohol drop quickly and can also dampen your desire to control your food intake.
Eliminate 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 saturated fats. 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, cut visible fat from meat, remove skin from poultry, prepare foods using low-fat cooking methods (baking, grilling, roasting), and read labels to identify foods containing polyunsaturated fats or monounsaturated 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 great!
Ready-to-use spray 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 spray on food so you can cook it instead of frying or brushing it with oil.
Step 4: Eat your vegetables and fruits! Eat a range of colors: green, red, orange, yellow, vegetables and fruits contain essential nutrients and fiber for good health. These foods are rich in vitamins C, A, potassium, antioxidants, phytochemicals; and are naturally low in fat and sodium.
Fill at least half of your plate with vegetables and opt for fresh fruit for dessert or as a snack.
Step 5: Reduce sugar. I have always loved sweets, but have cut back on sweets to improve my health and manage my weight. Most of us consume a lot more sugar than we realize. It hides in juices, jellies, jams, cookies, candies, cakes, pies, regular soft drinks, cereals, snacks, condiments and many other foods.
Start with the obvious sources of sugar and move on to naturally sweet foods like fruit (fresh, canned without syrup, frozen without sugar, or dried – go lightly 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: look for the number of grams of sugar per serving and choose lower sugar alternatives. Another caveat: some studies indicate that even artificially sweetened foods and drinks can still create cravings for sweets.
Step 6: Cut sodium and increase potassium. Nearly one in three 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 diet. Years ago it was used to preserve food, but today we taste it and think low sodium foods are bland. To spice up your foods, replace salt and sodium-rich spice blends with naturally spicy ingredients like hot peppers or jalapeno peppers (also high in vitamins and antioxidants) and your favorite salt-free spices.
Remember to read labels and avoid foods and drinks high in sodium.
Increasing potassium in your diet can also help lower blood pressure. Bananas, oranges, potatoes with the skin on, 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 include steel cut oats, kamut, and quinoa. I cook my whole grains in a rice cooker, Instant Pot or slow cooker so I don’t have to watch the cooking which usually takes 45-50 minutes on the stove. Many whole grains can be used to make a simple and tasty salad or can be eaten as a hot breakfast cereal with fruits and nuts.
For quick and tasty whole grain hot cereal, I like old fashioned oats microwaved on high for 2 minutes and ready to eat. Top it with some dried cranberries and walnuts to add sweetness and texture. It’s quick and easy, inexpensive, great tasting, filling – 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, recharge and rejuvenate! Walking is my time to take a break, get away from daily stress, and enjoy some fresh air, music, or time to talk to 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 rejuvenate. Give yourself at least 10-15 minutes a day – Yes, you can!
Step 9: Include 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 your 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 one thing you think you can be successful with and go from there. The most important key is to believe that you can make changes that become lifelong commitments to your health.
Best wishes for a heart healthy future!
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