preventing heart disease
There are many ways to prevent heart disease – the number one killer in America!
To help prevent heart disease, maintain a healthy weight, stay active, control your blood sugar, it is imperative to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, get your yearly bloodwork done, and avoid tobacco, drugs, and alcohol.
Why heart disease matters
Heart disease is a very broad term that encompasses high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, congestive heart failure (CHF), peripheral artery disease, heart attack, and stroke. Heart disease, you may be surprised to learn, is actually the number one killer in America. In fact, 1 in 4 Americans die of heart disease each year according to dosomething.org. 1 in 3 U.S. adults has high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke. In this country, someone suffers a heart attack every forty seconds.
All these facts combine to highlight the reality that heart disease is a huge burden – in medical/financial terms and emotional impact. The saddest part is that many aspects of heart disease are preventable with appropriate dietary and lifestyle modifications. The power is in your hands to prevent heart disease.
Maintain a healthy weight
Managing your weight is one of the most important factors in preventing the development of heart disease. Excess weight requires the heart to work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. This added strain on the heart can lead to high blood pressure and heart failure. Managing your weight involves both healthy dietary habits and exercise. Work with a qualified healthcare provider to come up with the best approach for your lifestyle and any current health challenges.
Even small changes can make a huge difference. Walking 20 minutes a day, biking, joining a yoga or Pilates class are all simple places to start. Do the type of physical activity you enjoy – walking the dog, playing with your kids, working out with a gym buddy, etc. Remember that building new habits is a gradual process, and be open to trying new things. Physical activity will not only help with weight management, but cardiovascular workouts will also strengthen your heart!
Consider the Mediterranean Diet
Americans seem to have a hard time with moderation. We eat like it is the end of the world and then we do a juice cleanse. We feast and then crash-diet. Getting into a better relationship with food is important. Finding moderation can be the key to building lasting healthy lifestyle habits and getting off the rollercoaster once and for all.
The Mediterranean Diet is not a crash-diet or fad; it is a lifestyle. It focuses on eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and seafood in moderation, staying active and enjoying the occasional indulgence. Most of us know that we should not eat dessert after every meal. Dessert is a treat to be enjoyed from time to time.
The same is true for alcohol and fatty meats like pork and bacon. The Mediterranean Diet’s strength is that it is built on good habits while allowing for “treat foods” or “cheat meals.” The goal is not to be too restrictive. We all need a little wiggle room to sustain our healthy lifestyle decisions. The other benefit of this approach is nutrient-dense fruits and veggies that provide antioxidants to protect your heart.
The importance of routine blood work
I hate to say this, but it is true: you can be skinny and unhealthy. You can be a little overweight, and all your bloodwork be normal. You do not know until you get checked. Knowledge is power, and you need as much information as possible to make the best choices. The yearly baseline labs I run on all my patients include HbA1c, TSH, Vitamin D, CBC, CMP, and a lipid panel. These labs will look for patterns and trends; they are a good set of basic labs to assess overall health. Blood sugar (HbA1c), kidney function (CMP), and lipid panel (aka cholesterol) are all essential for heart health. When your doctor runs labs, make sure you get a copy for your records. Keep track of your yearly labs and see if you notice any trends over time.
Drugs and alcohol
Smoking and being overweight are probably the two greatest preventable factors that contribute to heart disease. This is not to say that quitting smoking is easy – far from it. But I know that it is doable. I have helped many people quit this habit for good. I will state the obvious and say that you should also avoid recreational drugs. Cocaine, heroin and street drugs can irreparably damage the heart and should always be avoided.
Perhaps the most controversial drug to discuss is alcohol. Here we go back to the moderation issue. Moderation in alcohol consumption has two parts: quantity and timing. For quantity, women should consume fewer than 7 drinks and men fewer than 14 drinks per week. There is some debate over these numbers, and my personal approach is to say that everyone should consume fewer than 7 alcoholic beverages per week. Alcohol is empty calories, hinders weight management efforts, and taxes the liver. Too much at once kills you quickly, too much overtime can kill you slowly. The other aspect is timing; consuming more than 4 drinks in one sitting is considered “binge drinking” and is especially hard on the body.
Control blood sugar
High blood sugar plays havoc with every part of the body. It literally makes your blood sticky, and these sticky red blood cells (how we measure HbA1c) can damage blood vessels and nerves. Areas that are particularly susceptible to damage are the kidneys, extremities and eyes. Kidney disease is a major risk factor for hypertension as the kidneys are an important part of blood pressure regulation. A chronically elevated blood sugar puts your body into the position of storing all that excess energy somewhere. The body stores it as fat which can clog up your arteries too!
In conclusion, many things are within your control when it comes to preventing heart disease. Maintain a healthy weight, establish good dietary habits, drink moderately, don’t smoke, stay active, check your labs yearly, control your blood sugar, and say no to drugs.