Love is in the air. Whether planning a Valentine’s Day surprise for your sweetheart, checking in on elderly parents, or making healthy valentine treats for your child’s classroom party, February is the perfect month to show some love. February is National Heart Health month and a great reminder that one of the best ways to love yourself and those around you is to promote healthy lifestyles.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. About 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year – that’s an astonishing 1 in every 4 deaths. Every year about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, 525,000 are a first heart attack, and 190,000 happen in people who have already had a heart attack. As a cardiologist, I hear the same question every day: How could I have prevented my heart attack, and how do I keep this from happening again?
Physicians spend a lot of time focusing their efforts on stabilizing and reversing damage done to the heart. While our modern day advances in medicine and stent technology are important, the lesser known fact is that this is only part of the solution. The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” could not be more true in the modern era where time is scarce and health takes a back seat to work deadlines and other stressors. As a preventative cardiologist, I tell my patients it’s surprisingly simple to make impactful dietary and lifestyle changes that can be better than any medication I can prescribe.
Here are some tips to start showing your heart some love and help reduce your risk of heart disease:
- Fruits and vegetables – Heart healthy diets rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables (at least 5 servings per day) have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke by 30 percent (1-3)[e1] . Try to vary the fruits and vegetables you consume so they consist of many shapes, sizes, and colors to maximize your consumption of natural vitamins, anti-oxidants, nutrients, and fiber. In particular, aim to incorporate dark, green leafy vegetables which are high in Vitamin K and carotenoids/flavonoids; these are important antioxidants needed to stabilize plaques in blood vessels and decrease overall inflammation. Lettuce, sweet chard, spinach, mustard greens, broccoli, and kale, in addition to citrus fruits such as oranges, limes, and grapefruit, are “super foods” that show a particular association to reduction in cardiovascular events. Blueberries, grapes, and apples are also great in colorful fruit salads and associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, a known heart attack risk factor.
- Plant -Based Diets – Defined as a regimen that encourages whole, plant-based foods and discourages meats, dairy products, and eggs as well as all refined and processed foods, vegetarian and vegan-based diets are gaining popularity and are increasingly recommended by cardiologists. Research has demonstrated that plant-based diets are effective in promoting weight loss, dropping blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and reducing the number of medications needed to treat chronic conditions such a diabetes and heart disease. (10)
- Foods with B-complex vitamins – B-complex vitamins (folate, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12) play a critical role in the breakdown of homocysteine and can be found in beans, whole grains, breakfast cereals, and fortified grains such as brown rice. While the exact mechanism is still unclear and likely multifactorial, observational studies have demonstrated a link between high homocysteine levels and an increase in risk of heart disease and stroke (6-7).
- Dark Chocolate, Tea, and Red Wine – Studies now suggest that these delicious treats, consumed in moderation on a daily basis, are rich in flavonoids and contain powerful antioxidant properties to repair damaged blood vessels and reduce heart attacks in high risk patients. In addition to preventing plaque formation in arteries, flavonoids lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, and decrease blood platelet stickiness. (8-9) Remember to check with your doctor to make sure that it is okay to consume small amounts of red wine or tea. And, be wary of highly processed chocolates that are high in calories, fat, and sugar. Sorry white chocolate lovers, the benefits only come from dark chocolate (>60% cocoa).
- Remember to work in favorites Find ways to incorporate your favorites so your diet will be sustainable for the long haul. Life is all about balance and moderation. Remember to exercise and lead an active healthy lifestyle so you can burn calories, maintain a healthy weight, and still enjoy favorites in moderation. If you love soda, for instance, choose a diet soda or choose smaller portion sizes of any full-calorie favorites. Modify old recipes to low-fat versions by substituting apple sauce or greek yogurt for some of the oil in baked goods or adding more seasoning with fresh herbs and spices to develop depth for savory items.
Eating healthy does not have to mean sacrificing taste if you make wise and informed choices. Eat, Drink, and Be Merry in a healthy way to maintain energy balance in your life.
For more information on National Heart Month:
Centers for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/features/heartmonth/
Million Hearts Campaign: http://millionhearts.hhs.gov/index.html
American College of Cardiology: https://www.cardiosmart.org
2) Hung, H.C., et al., Fruit and vegetable intake and risk of major chronic disease. J Natl Cancer Inst, 2004. 96(21): p. 1577-84.
3) He, F.J., et al., Increased consumption of fruit and vegetables is related to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease: meta-analysis of cohort studies. J Hum Hypertens, 2007. 21(9): p. 717-28.
4. Wiseman, M., The second World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research expert report. Food, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer: a global perspective. Proc Nutr Soc, 2008. 67(3): p. 253-6.
5. Bazzano, L.A., et al., Intake of fruit, vegetables, and fruit juices and risk of diabetes in women. Diabetes Care, 2008. 31(7): p. 1311-7.
6. Rimm EB, Willett WC, Hu FB, et al. Folate and vitamin B6 from diet and supplements in relation to risk of coronary heart disease among women. JAMA. 1998; 279:359-364.