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Our Health

February 15, 2012

Heart health: Take risk factors into your own hands

MEADVILLE — February is American Heart Month, a time to pause and consider the prevalence of heart disease and the lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent it or limit its impact on your health. Heart disease accounts for about 2,200 deaths per day in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control. Just as the book I co-authored, “Hypertension Cookbook For Dummies,” was being published, the DASH diet received applause early this year when U.S. News and World Report ranked it as the number one most useful dietary strategy for improved health, appropriate for anyone with or without heart disease.

When considering your heart health, learning about the risk factors is a good place to start (see sidebar). There are several risk factors that are in your hands that you can impact with changes in diet or lifestyle. For instance you can:

- Make changes in your eating and lifestyle to prevent or control diabetes and hypertension.

- Enroll in a smoking cessation program.

- Commit to a regular exercise schedule, and think about how you can add more activity to your regular day (taking stairs, walking more, doing more household chores, spending fewer hours sitting).

The key dietary components to track in order to help control blood pressure and maintain heart health are: fat, fiber and antioxidants. You will want to include healthy fats in your diet that are low in saturated fat (olive oil, nuts, fatty fish) and reduce the saturated fat in your diet (the skin on chicken wings; high-fat cuts of beef such as prime rib, ribeye or T-bone steaks; bologna, sausages, fried food), but you can include lean cuts of meats, such as loin cuts and skinless poultry.

If you do splurge on a high-cut fat, portion control is important. Your total daily meat intake should not surpass eight ounces. As important, you’ll want to add the good stuff to your diet: fruits, veggies and low-fat dairy foods (which all provide antioxidants).

Some foods to include for your heart health:

- Salmon. Fatty fish contains heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. If you don’t think you’re a fish-lover, do pick up a cookbook or find a new recipe. Adding flavors you enjoy to fish may encourage you to eat it, and you may just find you like it. Fatty fish has a “meatier” texture than most white fish does, and any fish is very quick and simple to prepare in less than 30 minutes.

- Olive oil. You can mix one tablespoon of olive oil with one tablespoon of another vegetable oil (like soybean) to saute vegetables or brown meats. You can also use olive oil for salads and vinaigrettes.

- High-fiber foods (unpackaged). Fruits and vegetables naturally provide fiber to the diet. Limit fruit juices to no more than 6 ounces per day, and add two to three servings of fruit to your day. Any whole fruit is a good choice; berries have a particularly high antioxidant content. You want to aim for up to four to five servings of veggies, too. One serving is a half-cup, so including a cooked vegetable and a tossed salad at dinner, for instance, will easily provide you with three servings. You can also get creative with a blender and blend steamed vegetables into purees to use in soups or sauces, or even to add to baked goods.

- High-fiber foods (packaged). Whole grains are also important, but you need to read labels carefully when it comes to packaged food. Sometimes fiber is added artificially, and the more processed the food, the less benefit (for instance, oatmeal is high in fiber, but an “oatmeal bar” may not have a lot of oats in it). Read labels for total fiber, but also take a peek at ingredient lists to ensure that the whole grains top the list. While a “high-fiber breakfast bar” may be great when you’re in a rush, check the label for sugar (aim for less than 10 grams) and saturated fat (aim for less than 2 grams).

- Low-fat dairy. The Dietary Approaches To Stop Hypertension (DASH) research trials showed that including three servings of low-fat dairy in the diet promoted lower blood pressure compared to those not including dairy (with all other diet components controlled). You can include dairy in many ways beyond just drinking a glass of milk. Use low-fat milk to make cream sauces, enjoy a mid-morning snack of Greek yogurt (creamy, and also higher in protein than regular yogurt), make smoothies in your blender using yogurt and frozen berries, or have 1 to 2 ounces of low-fat cheese with apple slices as your mid-afternoon snack. After your daily workout, 8 ounces of low-fat chocolate milk is a great post-workout recovery drink.

Choose goals based on the above lifestyle and diet tips. Make one change, one week at a time, and your diet and lifestyle changes can add up to a healthier heart.

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