February is American Heart Month, which is a great time to reevaluate and focus on your heart health. As we age, our risks for heart disease and related issues go up, so keeping control of other risk factors is imperative in living a long, healthy life. When it comes to conditions like prediabetes, hypertension and high blood cholesterol, there’s a lot of different opinions on treatment and cures. But what it really comes down to is diet and lifestyle; what you eat, and what you DO!
The key to a heart healthy diet is to cut out trans and saturated fats. While trans fats tend to raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol, N6 and N3 polyunsaturated fats , like those in fish oil, can have a protective quality by lowering LDL cholesterol while maintaining a healthy level of HDL (good) cholesterol. You’ll also want to choose foods low in sodium, because a high salt diet has been linked with high blood pressure.
Cholesterol can also be lowered by consuming lots of soluble fibers and plant sterols and stanols. Soluble fibers help reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream. Plant sterols and stanols also prevent cholesterol absorption, but do so in the gut! Nuts, strawberries, citrus fruits, apples and fatty fish all have these nutrients, and can be helpful in combating this condition.
Prediabetes is different from diabetes; it’s similar to an early warning system. Now, people with type I diabetes will not go through prediabetes, so this is applicable only to people at risk for type II diabetes. What happens is that your body slowly becomes resistant to insulin. If left untreated, your pancreas can’t keep up with the demand, and your blood sugar can no longer be balanced.
Unlike diabetes, however, prediabetes can be reversed! By eating foods that don’t impact your blood glucose level as much, you can reduce the demand for insulin in your body, taking pressure off your pancreas and reversing insulin resistance. A great tool for those starting out is the glycemic index. It’s a ranking system that compares foods to white bread, in terms of how they affect blood sugar. Foods that are ranked low (<50) have less impact, and will help you stay in control!
Hypertension also requires some specific dietary changes. In addition to lowering the amount of trans and saturated fats you eat, it’s important to get plenty of protein, calcium and fiber. Researchers at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute did a study to see how efficient this kind of diet could be. Out of that study, they created the DASH diet, which lays out guidelines to help mitigate high blood pressure. Some patients following the diet were able to reduce their blood pressure in just two weeks, making it one of the most effective diets out there.
There are medications for these conditions, and in some cases, they may be necessary, but lifestyle changes are always recommended first. After all, meds like statins, ACE inhibitors and blood thinners all have side effects that range from mild to deadly. For example, blood thinners can save you from clots that cause heart attacks, but some, like Xarelto, have no antidote if you accidentally start to bleed. What started as a lifesaver then becomes life-threatening. So, the more you can do to avoid the needs for these, the better.
When it comes to heart health, don’t let your age catch up to you. Early intervention is key, and you have all the tools you need at your disposal. Combining these dietary recommendations with just 30 minutes of exercise a day can strengthen your heart, reduce your risk, and help you lead a healthier life!