A Heart to Heart: The Truth About Healthy Eating
Tomorrow February begins--the month when we see red and pink hearts adorning shopping centers, stuffed animals, and boxes of chocolate. With that kind of built-in association, it's only natural that The American Heart Association (AHA) observes February as Heart Health month. So before you reach for the ganache-filled truffles for your sweetie, think on this: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the U.S.; however, we can reduce our risk through healthy diet and lifestyle choices.
You Can't Exercise Away Your Heart Problem
Like many of us, ABC News anchor Bill Weir didn't think about his heart on a regular basis. After all, he was a healthy weight, exercised daily, and rarely got sick. Assigned a story on heart health, he went to interview Dr. David Agus, who has treated Lance Armstrong, Steve Jobs, and Ted Kennedy, and is a proponent of preventative medicine. Weir underwent several tests, including a cardiac CT scan, mostly to create a visual example for viewers--never thinking they would possibly find something wrong. When the results came in, he was shocked to find not a clean bill of health, but rather a calcium deposit and lesions on his arteries that, according to Dr. Agus, could lead to heart attack and even death within five years.
What's Bad for Your Heart
How could a forty-something who exercises regularly, doesn't smoke, and has no symptoms of illness, be so close to "drop[ping] dead within five years"? To use a four-letter word, diet. Weir admitted to eating lots of vegetables, but also lots of cheese, meat, and beer. His diet was high in saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium. Although everyone needs some fat in their diet to live, eating saturated fat raises the blood's cholesterol levels. Trans fats (or trans-fatty acids) are found in small amounts in meat and dairy, but the majority of trans fats consumed now comes from hydrogenated plant oils added to processed foods to increase shelf life. Trans fats raise "bad" or LDL cholesterol and lowers "good" or HDL cholesterol, thus increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke, not to mention type 2 diabetes. A diet overrun with sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which makes one more likely to develop heart disease and stroke as well. Put them all together, and you have a recipe for a less than healthy heart.
It's What's Inside that Counts
It's a common misconception to think that if we exercise, don't go over our recommended caloric limit, and sneak a fruit or veggie in here and there, that we're immune to serious illnesses-- but that's simply not the case. Diet goes hand in hand with exercise, and the kinds of foods we put into our bodies matter. Our diets need to be filled, not sprinkled, with nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. The AHA recommends at least 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day, 3 ounces of fiber-rich whole grains a day, 3.5 ounces of oily fish a week, and 4 servings of nuts, legumes, and seeds a week. It also recommends no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day, 2 servings or fewer of processed meats per week, and that saturated fat makes up less than 7% of your total energy intake.
"Life's Simple 7"
The AHA's new national diet goal is "to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent while reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent by the year 2020." Whether or not you think that's a lofty goal, it consists of making small lifestyle changes that will lead to longer lives, what they've called "Life's Simple 7":
- don’t smoke;
- maintain a healthy weight;
- engage in regular physical activity;
- eat a healthy diet;
- manage blood pressure;
- take charge of cholesterol; and
- keep blood sugar, or glucose, at healthy levels.
So, this Valentine's Day, it's okay to buy your sweetie chocolate covered cherries and indulge in a calorie-busting dinner and dessert at the nearby Italian restaurant, but as your love grows, learn to share healthy fare daily and go for romantic walks. That way, there'll be many more Valentine's Days to look forward to in the years to come.
What foods are hard to replace in your diet despite their being bad for your heart?