National Heart Month can serve as a reminder to each of us to look at our present health, our family history, our current weight, how we are feeling – and if necessary, make some adjustments.
It is true that if coronary heart disease runs in your family, you are at an increased risk. But the good news is that genetics is only one of many risk factors for developing heart disease.
And essentially, all those other risk factors are things that you have some measure of control over. Read that once more. We do have control over many of the risk factors for heart disease. So let’s outline those risk factors and what you can do to address them.
For instance, if you smoke, it is incredibly important for you to stop. There are smoking cessation programs that are offered in most areas.
Your diet also plays a very big role in heart health.
Specifically, try to avoid foods that are high in fats and cholesterol, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. It’s also really essential that if you’re overweight, that you lose some weight.
Other risk factors for the development of heart disease include stress, lack of exercise, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Taking control of these areas of our life can give us a better quality of life in addition to a healthier heart. Natural supplements may be helpful to you in these areas as well.
Our diets are where we can start. A heart healthy diet is a well balanced diet with foods from all major food groups, but with emphasis on a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It also includes fat free and low fat dairy products, legumes, poultry, lean meats, and at least two servings of fish per week – preferably, cold water fish, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids (see below for more about the importance of Omega 3 fatty acids).
Eating fish has been shown to be very healthy for you heart but red meat, not so much. vIn fact, there was a long-term study published very recently in Circulation, which is the Journal of the American Hearth Association. It reports some dramatic findings about eating red meat.
In this study, women who had two servings a day of red meat had a 30% higher risk of developing coronary heart disease, as compared to those who had on average, a half of serving of red meat each day. The data also showed that eating more servings of poultry, fish, and nuts also significantly were associated with the decrease risk of coronary heart disease.
Obesity is a huge risk factor for heart disease. It’s important to manage your weight by limiting foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional quality. Lean cuts of meat such as poultry, or vegetarian protein options such as legumes or soy, are lower in calories and fat. Fresh fruits and vegetables are really important as well because they offer great nutritional value including potassium, magnesium, calcium, and fiber, without very many calories.
This kind of healthy eating can lower your risk of having a heart attack or other coronary heart disease, and also reduce bad cholesterol and blood pressure – all good news.
There’s also new research that confirms the benefit of eating what’s commonly referred to as the Mediterranean diet, which includes most everything we’ve been describing – fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, seafood – but also includes yogurt, olive oil, and small amounts of wine.
In a recent study, researchers found that men eating the Mediterranean style diet had greater heart rate variability than those eating a more western style diet. Reduced heart rate variability is a risk factor for both coronary artery disease and sudden death from coronary artery disease.
And another new study, published in the July2010 Journal of Experimental Biology, found that foods in the Mediterranean diet, especially virgin olive oil, help change how genes associated with atherosclerosis function. They also positively impacted lipid and DNA oxidation, insulin resistance, and inflammation.
We shouldn’t ignore the benefits of fiber. Eating a diet high in fiber is associated with the decreased risk of obesity, as well as the decreased risk of diabetes. And it can also help to lower cholesterol levels, another risk factor for heart disease.
Diets that are high in fiber also tend to be low in saturated fat and cholesterol. And fiber rich foods are filling, so that can really help with weight management as well. Some fiber rich foods to include in your diet are: oatmeal, oat bran, beans, barley, citrus fruits, strawberries, apples, whole wheat breads and cereals, brown rice, and essentially, all fruits and vegetables.
Takeaway: focus on eating a healthy balanced diet that includes moderate amounts of olive oil, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and plenty of fiber. Do this for your heart but also receive many side benefits because there is nutritional value – that can help build health throughout your body – in all of these foods.
Many of us can not get all of the nutrients we need from our diets. A good example is omega 3 fatty acids. Research tells us that unless you eat fish that is a good source of pure omega 3’s – several times each week – you aren’t getting enough to help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Omega 3 fatty acids are thought to reduce inflammation, which damages your arteries, allowing cholesterol and lipid filled plaque to accumulate, leading to heart disease. And Omega 3 fatty acids can also help decrease triglycerides, lower blood pressure, and reduce the blood’s tendency to clot.
Many people are concerned about the potentially harmful toxins out there in the water supplies such as mercury, dioxins, and PCBs that may be contaminating many types of fish, especially, the larger fish. This is why experts commonly recommend the use of purified Omega 3 fish oil supplements – to avoid any toxins (new sizes and lower prices!).
The American Heart Association recommends that those with coronary heart disease take 1000 mg of Omega 3 fatty acids in supplement form.