February is American Heart Month. It’s a good time to learn a bit more about one of your most important organs and how you can take care of it. Heart disease is the number one killer globally, but most heart problems are preventable.
Here are five things you should know about caring for your heart:
1. Your Risk Factors
Many people don’t realize that they are living with a risk factor for heart disease. Diabetes is an often overlooked contributor to heart problems. High blood sugar can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart’s rhythm.
Diabetics are also more likely to have high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and high blood triglycerides. All of these conditions are risk factors that non-diabetics can have as well. If you have diabetes or you know that someone in your family has had high blood pressure or high cholesterol, you may need to get tested more often so your doctor can catch any problems before they become serious.
If you are African American, male, or over 65, you may be at an increased risk for heart disease. Smokers and obese individuals are also at a higher risk. Even though you can’t change your race, gender, or age, there are lifestyle changes you can make if you know you are at high risk. Getting a yearly check-up, avoiding tobacco smoke, and maintaining a healthy weight can help you avoid becoming another statistic.
2. How to Eat Fats
There are several different types of fats found naturally in foods. None of them are bad in moderation, but some need to be eaten in smaller amounts than others. High levels of saturated fat can cause or aggravate high cholesterol and contribute to high blood triglycerides. Saturated fat is found in meat, palm oil, coconut oil, and cheese. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. The American Heart Association recommends that only 5-6% of your daily calories come from saturated fat. For someone on a 2000 calorie a day diet, that’s 13 grams of saturated fat a day.
Omega-6 fatty acids and Omega-3 fatty acids (polyunsaturated fats) are both “good” types of fats. When eaten as part of a healthy diet, they help lower bad cholesterol and provide nutrients, including the antioxidant Vitamin E. It’s important to note that a healthy ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids must be maintained for overall health. A healthy ratio is considered to be between 1:1 and 4:1. Many Americans eat about 15x more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats. This imbalance promotes inflammation and can have a damaging effect on the heart and overall health.
Omega-6 fats are found in seed and plant oils, especially cottonseed, corn, and sunflower oil. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish, eggs, flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts. The excess of omega-6 fats in the western diet usually comes from packaged foods. Eating a diet of whole, unprocessed foods will help you achieve a healthier balance of these fats. Taking a fish oil supplement can also help you get more Omega-3’s.
Monounsaturated fats are another good fat that can help to lower bad cholesterol. Olive oil, canola oil, and sesame oil contain high amounts of monounsaturated fat.
Replacing some of the saturated fat in your diet with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats can lower your risk for high cholesterol and related heart problems. Keep in mind that all fats contain 9 calories per gram and should be eaten in moderation.
3. Fiber is Your Friend
You may pay more attention to calories and vitamins than to fiber, but fiber is just as important. It plays a variety of roles that can help improve your heart health and your overall well being. Fiber keeps you full longer and can prevent overeating and lead to healthier body weight. It also helps to move food through your digestive tract faster. When food sits for too long in your intestines, your body absorbs more cholesterol. Eating more fiber can help lower cholesterol levels.
Men need between 30 and 35 grams of fiber per day and women need between 20 and 25 grams. If your current fiber intake is low, increase it gradually to avoid uncomfortable side effects like stomach cramps and bloating. Healthy foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and seeds contain fiber and important vitamins and minerals.
Most of your fiber should come from food, but if you need a bit more than you are getting in your diet, you can supplement with fiber capsules. Psyllium husk fiber is particularly good at lowering cholesterol.
4. Your Supplement Options
Most of your nutrients should come from food, but some supplements like fish oil and fiber can fill in dietary gaps and protect your heart. Most healthy people who eat a well-rounded diet won’t need to consider other types of supplements for heart health. If you have a risk factor like high cholesterol, you may want to consider adding supplements to your healthy lifestyle.
Plant stanols and sterols occur naturally in healthy foods like walnuts, but supplementation can be helpful for individuals with high cholesterol. CoQ10 is another supplement that has been proven to aid heart health. It is especially beneficial for those taking prescription medications to lower cholesterol. These medications lower your body’s levels of CoQ10, and supplementing with it can help prevent side effects.
Magnesium is an often overlooked supplement for heart health. Low magnesium levels have been linked with risk factors like high blood pressure. Because magnesium levels in the soil are low in many places, even people who eat a healthy diet can be deficient in magnesium.
Ask your healthcare provider what supplements can help you meet your heart-health goals.
5. The Importance of Exercise
We know you’ve heard it before, but it’s hard to overstate the benefits of exercise for heart health. Your heart is a muscle, and like all muscles, it needs exercise to keep it strong. There are two types of exercise that benefit your heart, aerobic exercise and resistance training.
Aerobic exercise gets your heart rate up. You should aim for 30 minutes a day, five days a week of activities like brisk walking, biking, swimming, or jumping rope. Resistance exercise builds muscle strength and helps you shed fat. Two days a week of strength training using body weight resistance or dumbbells can help you maintain a healthy weight. Exercise also has other heart-healthy benefits, such as reducing stress and improving mood.