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Heart Smarts

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

Matters of the Heart

By: Pam Smith, RDN

When it comes to matters of the heart, the choices you make can mean the difference between life and death. No drama; just truth.

Several risk factors for heart disease, such as your age, gender, family and personal history, and ethnic background, aren’t within your control and can’t be changed.

However, the good news is that many risk factors can be offset by making wise choices – changing the lifestyle patterns that are completely within your control. And although some points (like stop smoking, exercise, and eat well) are certainly not NEW news – they are essential truths vital to living better longer, with a heart that is well, strong, and sound.

Seven "Can Do" Steps to Protect Against a "Broken" Heart

In principle, all people can take steps to lower their risk for heart disease and heart attack:

1. Have Regular Checkups to Monitor Your Health. Follow your doctor’s advice and encourage all family members to see their doctor regularly. Know and manage your numbers – your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar:

  • Prevent and control high blood cholesterol - High blood cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. Preventing and treating high blood cholesterol includes eating a diet low in saturated fat, with low to no trans fats, and high in fiber, keeping a healthy weight, and getting regular exercise. All adults should have their cholesterol levels checked once every five years. If yours is high, your doctor may prescribe medicines to help lower it, but your eating and lifestyle choices are all critical.

  • Prevent and control high blood pressure - Lifestyle actions such as a healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables, regular physical activity, not smoking, and healthy weight will help you to keep normal blood pressure levels and all adults should have their blood pressure checked on a regular basis. Blood pressure is easily checked. If your blood pressure is high, you can work with your doctor to treat it and bring it down to the normal range. A high blood pressure can usually be controlled with lifestyle changes and with medicines when needed.

  • Prevent and control diabetes - Unmanaged diabetes increases the risk of heart disease three to seven times, but managing those numbers can reduce their risk. Also, people can take steps to reduce their risk for diabetes in the first place, through weight loss and regular physical activity. Even with a family proclivity – history is not destiny!

2. Stop Smoking and Avoid Smoke.

It’s singly one of the best things you can do for your heart. Make the choice to quit smoking and stick with it. Smoking increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke – but your risk of heart attack or stroke markedly decreases soon after stopping. Talk to your doctor about ways to stop smoking and find a support group to offer you encouragement as you make the change. Reward yourself in positive ways when you quit.

3. Get Fit.

While a sedentary lifestyle greatly increases your risk of having a heart attack, doing 30-40 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week can lower your heart disease risk and make you feel better, too. Make exercise a living, breathing part of your life, develop an exercise plan that you can live with and choose activities that you enjoy. Find an exercise buddy, and encourage each other to stick with it.

4. Maintain a Healthy Weight.

Healthy weight status in adults is usually assessed by using weight and height to compute a number called the “body mass index” (BMI). BMI usually indicates the amount of body fat. An adult who has a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese. Overweight is a BMI between 25 and 29.9. Normal weight is a BMI of 18 to 24.9. Proper diet and regular physical activity can help to maintain a healthy weight. You can compute your BMI at the CDC’s nutrition and physical activity program website:

5. Deal with Stress.

Get plenty of sleep (yep – 7 1/2 to 8 hours is still the prescription!) every night. Eliminate activities that make your schedule too hectic, and avoid stressful situations when possible. Take 15 to 20 minutes each day to sit quietly and do nothing. Breathe in and out deeply and think about a peaceful setting. Accept the things that you can’t change and realize that you don’t have to solve all of life’s problems on your own.

6. Take Heart.

Anxiety and depression can be a problem for people with heart disease or those who have had a heart attack. Share your thoughts and feelings with a doctor, family member, or friend. Find ways to relieve worry and tension, while trying to stay positive and hopeful about life. Laugh as much as you can!

7. Eat Smart for Your Heart!

Step up your eating habits today; along with healthy weight and regular physical activity, an overall healthy diet can help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. This includes eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, whole grains and legumes, lowering or cutting out added salt or sodium, and eating less saturated fat and trans fat to lower these risks.

  • Eating excess total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat are all risk factors associated with heart disease. Read food labels and make wise food choices, choosing foods low in saturated fat and trans fat. The healthier fats choices should be the monounsaturated fats: olive oil, nuts, and avocado in moderate amounts.

  • Eat high Omega-3 fish and seafood, along with skinless poultry, lean meats and low-fat dairy.

  • Cut down on salt and sugar.

  • Start every day with a balanced breakfast, and eat several mini-meals during the day, ideally every 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

  • Eat high fiber fruits, vegetables, wholegrain cereals, and dried beans.

  • Eat red for antioxidants! Red/purple fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, red and blue grapes, blueberries, beets, eggplant, red cabbage, red peppers, plums, and red apples, are loaded with powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins. They have been shown to delay cellular aging and help the heart by blocking the formation of blood clots, as well as helping to control blood pressure. Red wine fits in this category as well.

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