Everyone knows we celebrate Valentine’s Day in February, but did you know that it is also American Heart Month? This makes February a great month to start showing love for your heart. For years, heart disease has been the leading cause of death among both men and women in America. Annually, about 610,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S., accounting for about 1 in 4 deaths. The good news is that making lifestyle changes and seeking proper medical care can reduce heart disease risk.
Heart disease risk factors you cannot change:
- Genetics and family history
- Race or ethnicity
Heart disease risk factors you can do something about:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Tobacco use
- Overweight and obesity
- Unhealthy diet
- Physical inactivity
- Excessive alcohol use
If you have one or more of these risk factors, start making changes now. Make healthy habits a regular part of your lifestyle and work with your medical doctor to prevent or treat medical conditions that increase your heart disease risk. Here are a few healthy lifestyle tips to get you started.
- Move more. Make exercise a part of your daily routine. Try walking for 10 minutes, 3-5 times per week. Gradually increase towards a goal of at least 150 minutes each week. If walking isn’t your thing, try classes such as water aerobics or Zumba®.
- Limit your sodium intake. Current guidelines from the American Heart Association recommend limiting sodium intake to no more than 2,300 mg/day and ideally no more than 1,500 mg/day, especially for those with high blood pressure. However, on average, most Americans consume more than 3,400 mg sodium/day. The majority of sodium in the American diet comes from prepackaged foods, processed foods, and foods eaten from restaurants.
Sodium is hidden in many prepackaged foods, and you may not even realize how much sodium you are consuming on a daily basis unless you carefully read the nutrition facts label. Be aware of the difference between low sodium and reduced sodium. A product may make a claim to be low sodium if it provides 140 mg of sodium or less per serving. Reduced sodium means the product provides at least 25 percent less sodium per serving than the regular sodium level, however this does not necessarily mean the product is low in sodium.
Although salt added to foods during cooking or at the table only accounts for a small amount of overall sodium intake, it is still important to be mindful of your use of the salt shaker. One teaspoon of salt provides roughly 2,300 mg sodium, the maximum amount of sodium you should consume in a day. Rather than reaching for the salt, try using fresh or dried herbs such as parsley or basil or spices such as garlic powder to add flavor to your foods.
- Limit your intake of added sugars. These are the sugars and other calorie containing sweeteners added to your foods and beverages during processing or preparation. No more than 10 percent of your daily calorie intake should come from added sugars. For someone that needs 1,500 calories/day, that means no more than 150 calories from added sugars, roughly the amount of sugar in a single can of Coke.
- Eat a healthy diet. Focus on incorporating nutrient dense foods into your diet. Include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans/legumes, nuts and seeds, fish, especially those containing omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, skinless poultry, plant-based proteins, low-fat and fat-free dairy products, and healthy fats as a regular part of your diet. Limit your intake of saturated and trans fats, sodium, red meat, and added sugars. Shop the outer aisles of the grocery store and avoid the aisles filled with processed and packaged foods that are often high in saturated fats, sodium, and/or sugar.
- Eat more meals prepared at home. Not only do you not have control over what goes in to your food when eating out, but portion sizes are also typically much larger than what you should be eating. Spend a few hours on the weekend planning and prepping some meals for the week. This will save time and make it easier to avoid eating out during busy weekdays. If you are in a rut with healthy meal ideas, pick 1 or 2 new recipes to try each week to increase your excitement for healthy eating. If you have kids, get them involved in the meal prep, as well. Additionally, try bringing lunch to work most days of the week. Not only is it healthier to bring your lunch, but you will also end up saving money.
- Limit alcohol intake. This means no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink for women.
Remember, starting with small, gradual changes now can lead to significant lifestyle changes over time. Pick one or more areas to begin making changes to reduce your heart disease risk. Set up an appointment with your doctor to evaluate your heart disease risk. Contact a registered dietitian, if you need help getting started with implementing healthy lifestyle changes.