February brings us American Heart Month reminding us to keep our heart healthy. Many of us don’t think much about our heart health. We spend so much time focusing on how to eat gluten free we sometimes forget about what else we need to do to keep our bodies functioning optimally. This is an important reminder because there are multiple things that can go wrong with our heart, including hypertension, heart disease, vascular disease & stroke. According to the American Heart Association every 39 seconds 1 American dies of cardio vascular disease (CVD) and 33.5% of adults 20 years of age or older have hypertension (high blood pressure). Not only that but heart disease is the number one killer in the US, beating out all cancers. As a registered dietitian this concerns me because these conditions are directly related to diet & lifestyle. That means they are preventable.
I am going to offer some simple yet essential tips to keep your heart beating healthy for years to come.
Keep sodium intake between 1500-2000 mg per day. Most sodium does not come from the saltshaker; it comes from eating at restaurants, canned foods, frozen meals and packaged foods. Sodium adds up fast; one teaspoon of table salt contains 2300 mg of sodium. A McDonald’s Premium Cesar salad with grilled chicken contains 580 mg of sodium. That’s without the dressing. If you add the Creamy Caesar dressing the sodium increases to 1070 mg. High blood pressure puts a lot of strain on the heart and is the most significant risk factor for heart disease. I recommend logging your sodium intake for one week to get an idea of your current sodium intake. There are many ways to do this; a nutrition app for your phone, free websites such as http://www.sparkpeople.com or using the USDA nutrient database http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/list.
Too much cholesterol causes plaque to build up on the inside of the arteries, restricting blood flow to the heart. High cholesterol is also related to stroke. The best way to prevent or reverse this condition is to eat a high fiber diet while lowering intakes of saturated & trans fats. Saturated fats are found in full-fat dairy products such as milk and cheese. Choose low fat versions of these foods. Red meat is also a significant source of saturated fat and should be restricted to one serving per week or less. Trans fats are even more detrimental to the health of our heart, raising LDL (bad cholesterol) and lowering HDL (good cholesterol). Companies use trans fats in their products because they are cheap and they extend the shelf life of their products. They are found in fried foods like French fries & doughnuts and in baked foods like cookies & crackers. Be aware of products that state, “trans fat free”. Manufacturers are allowed to have a certain amount of trans fat in their products and still be allowed to call it ‘trans fat free”. In the ingredient list on a package, trans fats will be listed as hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil. If you see those words, put that product back on the shelf. Remember, a ‘gluten free’ label does not necessarily mean the product is healthy. Adults are not the only ones with high cholesterol, we are seeing more and more children with high cholesterol levels. So it’s important to start young with good eating habits. Also keep in mind; regular exercise increases our good cholesterol.
Carrying extra weight around the belly puts you at a high risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and death. Even if your weight is normal but you have a “muffin top” or “beer belly” it is as significant a risk factor for death as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. It is the deep belly fat that surrounds the organs that causes trouble. This fat is known as visceral fat and is linked to hardening of the arteries. In addition, the extra weight puts strain on the heart, lungs and joints. Losing as little as 5-10 pounds can reduce blood pressure significantly.
Measure your waist to hip ratio to see if you are at an increased risk for heart disease. The following diagram shows you how to take the measurements.
Measurement of waist hip ratio: In a lean person (left), the waist can be measured at its narrowest point, while for a person with convex waist (right), it may be measured at about one inch above the navel. The hip is measured at its widest portion of the buttocks. Be sure to keep your legs close together.
Divide the waist measurement by the hip measurement; Women with waist-to-hip ratios of more than 0.8 are at increased health risk because of their fat distribution. And that men with waist-to-hip ratios of more than 1.0 are at increased health risk because of their fat distribution.
Keeping your blood sugar within normal limits is important for your heart whether you are diabetic or not. Long-term high blood sugar can double your risk of heart trouble. Most people with diabetes die from heart disease or a blood vessel disease. You can lower your risk by lowering your blood sugar. You can accomplish this by controlling the amount of carbohydrates you eat in a day. All products made with flour are carbohydrates regardless if they are gluten free or not.
As you can see diet and exercise play a critical role in keeping our hearts beating healthy. Being gluten free takes a lot of effort and so does being heart healthy but the benefits will pay off 10-fold. If you have any of these risk factors, start making small changes and eventually they will add up to make a significant difference.