Start with a Healthy Heart!

healthy heartIt seems appropriate that February would be National Heart Month.  After all, it brings us the Valentine’s Day holiday.  That gets us thinking of  hearts in a happy way.  However, we need to be serious when thinking about keeping our hearts and blood vessels healthy.   Did you know that heart disease kills one in three women while breast cancer kills one in twenty-nine?  It also takes the lives of thousands of men.  One thing that really stands out to me with heart disease is we absolutely can make changes in our lifestyles that can reduce our risk of getting it or at least delay its progression.  Diet, exercise, medication and stress control can significantly impact your  heart health.   If you have a family history of cardiovascular disease – you really need to pay attention and be proactive with regards to cardiovascular care  It’s never too early to start heart healthy eating.  Include plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains as a daily part of your children’s diet, starting  in toddlerhood so they develop a taste for those foods and develop lifelong good eating habits.

What are some changes you can make that can significantly reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke?  Primarily keeping your cholesterol (LDL and HDL) and triglycerides in check and maintaining a normal blood pressure.   How can we do that?  Start by knowing your baseline lipid  laboratory values (cholesterol, LDL, HDL, triglycerides).  I am a firm believer that teens need to get their lipids checked to make sure there is no early indication of  plaque formation.   Now you will not get a recommendation for this from your physician or pediatrician but I think it’s important to have a starting point – especially if you have a family history.  Prevention is the key!  Keeping those arteries clear at a young age is vital!  Cholesterol numbers should be checked every five years if results are within normal limits.   If you have abnormal values,  labs need to be drawn more frequently.  Normal values are:

  • Blood Pressure – 120/80 or below
  • LDL cholesterol – Optimal is considered to be below 100.  Above optimal – 100-129.  Borderline high – 130-159.  High 160-189.
  • HDL cholesterol – Optimal is considered 60 and above.  Less than 40 in men and less than 50 in women is considered low – higher risk of heart disease.
  • Triglycerides – 150 or below is considered normal.  150-199 is mildly high.  200-499 is high.  500 or higher is very high.
  • Cholesterol – Less than 200 is desirable.  200-239 is borderline.  240 and above is high.

Please note also that if you have heart disease or blood vessel disease, some experts recommend your LDL cholesterol be below 70.  This you would need to discuss with your physician.

LDL cholesterol (low density lipoproteins) are the “bad” guys.  They carry cholesterol to the cells and cause plaque to form on the artery walls.  Genetics, smoking, obesity, a high saturated fat diet and a sedentary lifestyle all contribute to higher levels of LDL’s.  HDL cholesterol (high density lipoproteins) are the “good” guys.  They carry cholesterol away from the cells where it goes to the liver for reprocessing.  Recent studies have also shown that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of HDL may inhibit the buildup of plaque on artery walls.  For every one point increase in HDL, there is a three percent decrease in a person’s risk of suffering a fatal heart attack.  That’s motivating to get your HDL number up!  How can we increase HDL?  Exercise, weight loss, increasing dietary fiber, consuming omega-3 fatty acids, limiting intake of simple carbohydrates (yup), and choosing mono- and polyunsaturated fats over saturated fats can all help increase HDL levels.

One of the most important dietary considerations for keeping your heart healthy is making sure you get enough fiber.  Fiber has been proven to help lower LDL cholesterol.  Haven’t you seen those Cheerios commercials?  Do you know you would have to eat 28 bowls of cereal to meet your needs for the day?  They boast about all the fiber in Cheerios but there is really only 1 gram/serving.  Ok – back to business.  Incorporate fiber into your diet as often as possible.  The recommended amount of fiber for children and adults is 14 grams per 1000 calories.  That pretty much means about 14-21 grams for children and 28 grams for adults per day.  Good sources of fiber include oat cereal, lentils, beans, fruits/vegetables, whole wheat and whole grains.  You really have to make an effort to get your fiber.  Some foods with the highest amounts of fiber are  black beans (15 grams/cup), raspberries (8 grams/cup), pears (5.1 grams), oatmeal (4 grams/cup).  To see a list of high fiber foods go to

Next, you want to make sure you are getting a healthy dose of omega-3’s.   Omega-3 fatty acids from fish and flaxseed are found to help protect against heart disease, specifically they help lower triglyceride levels.  Elevated triglycerides are associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease which increases your chance of heart attack or stroke.  Foods high in omega-3s include salmon, sardines, walnuts, and flaxseed.image11

Plant sterols and stanols have been linked with a reduction in LDL cholesterol.  Foods that are high in these compounds include brussel sprouts, beets, oranges, cauliflower and whole grains.  You can also find some products fortified with these such as margarine spreads.

Bottom line is that you need to know your  blood lipid numbers.  Follow a diet high in fiber, omega-3’s and plant sterols and stanols.   That pretty  much covers fruits, vegetables and whole grains – things we all should be including in our diets anyway.  Don’t smoke.  Keep stress under control.  Exercise!   If you have a family history of heart disease, see your doctor or a cardiologist prior to age 40.  Don’t wait until something happens.  Our genes are very powerful predictors of our future health.   Some people find that their weight is within normal limits, they don’t smoke, they work out regularly, and eat well but still have elevated cholesterol.   It is possible.  If all of those things don’t keep your numbers in a healthy range, do what you need to do.  It you need to be on medication for your cholesterol and/or blood pressure, do it!  The Mayo Clinic has a heart disease risk calculator tool  Try it and see where you fall.  Be proactive and be heart smart!

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  Benjamin Franklin