As you know, February is National Heart Month. You also know that heart disease is the #1 killer of women. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, low HDL (“good” cholesterol), high triglycerides, high LDL (“bad” cholesterol), elevated CRP (measure of inflammation in the body), high blood sugar, and a large waist circumference are all risk factors for heart attack or stroke.
The good news is that you CAN take charge of your health and reduce your risk of heart disease. How? Eat the RIGHT foods, exercise, get adequate sleep, and stress management. We know you’ve heard it all before. We repeat this stuff over and over, like a broken record. But, we do so because it works and it’s easy to do. Just start with one change a day and the beneficial effects will start to show before you know it.
To help you get started, here’s a list of the Worst and Best foods for your heart.
- Saturated fats. These bad boys increase your blood cholesterol. Found in whole-fat and 2% dairy foods (cheese, cream, milk, ice cream, yogurt), marbled red meat (“Prime” cuts of meat), and chicken and turkey with skin.
- Trans-fats. Read your labels – if it has “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” oil, put it back on the shelf. These fats can reduce HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels and raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. Found in most margarine, shortening, snack foods (crackers, chips, cookies, cupcakes, pastries), heavily processed foods and some cooking oils.
- Animal protein. Excessive animal protein has been shown to raise levels of homocysteine, a toxic amino acid. Instead of animal protein, try whole soy protein – aim for two servings of whole soy, such as tofu or edamame, per day. The best animal proteins are Omega-3 rich fish and limited amounts of lean chicken, turkey, and meat.
- Refined carbohydrates. If it’s white, don’t take a bite! Anything made with white, refined flour or other grains, as well as sugar (white or brown) and high-fructose corn syrup, is a recipe for increasing triglycerides and lowering your HDL. Cookies, cakes, crackers, donuts, breads, chips and sodas.
- Sodium. Excessive sodium has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. If it comes in a box, can, bottle, or bag, then it will likely be loaded with sodium (used as a preservative). Also, restaurant food is heavily salted (to improve flavor). Read labels (aim for no more than 1,500 -2,000 mg sodium per day), cut back on processed foods, and taste before you add salt to your food (use kosher or sea salt). One teaspoon of salt = 2,000 mg.
- Go Nuts! Great sources of heart-healthy fats. Aim for ¼ cup a day of almonds, walnuts and cashews. Choose raw or dry-roasted, unsalted nuts. You can also substitute 2 tbs. nut butter for the nuts.
- Eat plenty of fiber. Soluble fiber has a powerful cholesterol-lowering effect. The best sources of soluble fiber are beans and lentils, apples, citrus fruits, oats, barley, peas, carrots and ground flax seed. All fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are a combination of soluble and insoluble fiber, so there isn’t one that’s truly better than another.
- Eat the colors of the rainbow. The richer the colors, the more disease-preventing phytochemicals and antioxidants. Make sure to include fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack and try to get at least 4 different colors a day. Best bets: berries, tomatoes, leafy greens, mango, oranges, squash, and mushrooms.
- Soy.The protein in soy foods has been shown to lower cholesterol levels. Try to incorporate one to two servings a day into your meals. Watch out for soy-derivatives, often found in vegetarian “meats”. Instead, choose from tofu, tempeh, soy milk, whole soy beans and roasted soy nuts.
- Garlic. It has been shown to lower both cholesterol levels and blood pressure. I love it roasted (so sweet). Use one or two raw or lightly cooked cloves a day.
- Drink green tea daily. Cholesterol-lowering antioxidants. Drink it hot or iced.
- Take coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). CoQ10 is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to be beneficial for heart health (lowers cholesterol and blood pressure). Take 100-200 mg/day.
- Fish Oil. Rich in essential fatty acids known as omega-3s that have been shown to lower triglyceride (blood fat) levels, minimize inflammation and clotting, and increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol. If you take a supplement, check the label for the total amount of EPA and DHA per capsule or serving. Aim for at least 1,000 mg EPA + DHA a day.
As always, consult a Registered Dietitian and your medical doctor if you have high blood pressure or abnormal cholesterol levels. Lifestyle modification (diet, exercise, and stress reduction) should always be your first line of therapy. If you do not see enough of a reduction in your risk factors after 6 months of healthy lifestyle changes, then you may consider adding a medication.