A study using niacin to boost our good cholesterol (HDL) has just been stopped. The theory: raising HDL would protect us against heart attacks and strokes. Unfortunately, the study was stopped because it appeared that the use of niacin increased the risk of one particular type of stroke. Statistically 1.5 million heart attacks occur in the United States each year resulting in 500,000 deaths (Women’s Heart Foundation). Another startling statistic, death from heart attacks account for more deaths than all cancers combined. The costs related to heart attacks are reported to exceed $60 billion dollars each year!
Statistics out of the way, what should you do to avoid heart disease? The American Dietetic Association, which is the nation’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, states, “Eating well and being physically active are important for a healthy heart.” The outcome of combining healthy eating and exercise leads to weight reduction. Loosing just a few extra pounds can ease the burden on your heart, and lower your cholesterol levels.
What does “eating well” really mean? Does it mean load up your plate with a big juicy steak, baked potato with butter and sour cream, and creamed veggies? Sorry. Heart-healthy eating means limiting the type and amount of fat in your diet. You need to be label conscious and stay away from saturated and trans fat. These fats increase your LDL or “bad” cholesterol. On the other hand, monounsaturated fats help to lower your LDL and increase your HDL or “good” cholesterol. You find this type of fat in olive, canola, and peanut oils, and in almonds, pecans, walnuts, and peanuts. Thirty percent of your daily calorie intake should come from fats, but less than 10% of this fat should be saturated or trans.
There’s lots of hype about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, but what are they and how do we get them? These are essential fatty acids, which means our bodies cannot make them and we have to obtain them through our diet. There are two omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which are the building blocks for hormones that control immune function, blood clotting, and cell growth. Good sources come from the fat of cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, tuna, and trout. You should aim to have at least 2 servings of this type of fish a week. Vegetarian sources include walnuts and flaxseeds. A quick note regarding flaxseeds – they have to be ground to receive the benefits because our digestive system cannot break through the shell.
Eating WHOLE grain products is another key to heart-healthy eating. When you eat grain products such as cereals, breads, pasta and rice, you should aim to have at least half of these be whole grain. You need to read the label once again; the word “whole” should be in front of the type of flour or grain, such as “whole wheat flour”. Whole grain products help to increase your daily fiber intake. The benefits of fiber include preventing constipation, and reducing the risk of digestive conditions such as hemorrhoids, IBS, and diverticular disease. Fiber also lowers blood cholesterol levels, and aids in weight loss.
Fruits and vegetables are excellent choices for fiber and they also include vitamins and minerals, which are great for your heart and blood pressure. Grains, fruits and vegetables are all classified as carbohydrates and you should aim to have 55% of your daily diet be carbohydrates.
High blood pressure (140/90 mm/Hg or higher) is another risk factor for heart disease. Sodium intake is associated with high blood pressure and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute suggests a daily sodium intake of no more than 2,300 mg, which is less than 1 teaspoon, and if you are over 50 years old, have diabetes, or high cholesterol you should have no more than 1500 mg. Once again you need to read labels. A one-cup serving of canned soup can contain as much as 900+ mgs of sodium, which is almost a half-day serving in one dish! Look for products with reduced or low salt, put the saltshaker away, and season your foods with herbs and spices or salt-free seasonings.
Protein choices, which should be 15% of your daily diet, should include lean cuts of poultry, pork and beef. Choose low-fat or nonfat diary products or try incorporating some vegetarian protein choices such as soybeans (edamame), tofu, or soymilk.
Eating well simply means eating a balanced diet throughout the day and limiting both saturated and trans fats, and sodium. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains should be included in your daily intake and adding exercise to your daily/weekly schedule will help you maintain or loose those extra pounds, which can be a burden for your heart. Although niacin didn’t prove to be the magic bullet the scientists were hoping for, you should still take steps to a healthy heart all year long.