A Running List of Helpful Hints to Keep Your Heart Healthy
- ONCE A DAY, swap out one of your beverages for a big mug of green tea. Research suggests that the antioxidants in green tea reduce your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, including plaque rupture, and help control blood pressure. A Japanese study conducted at the Nippon Medical School concluded that "the more green tea patients consume, the less likely they are to have coronary artery disease."
- ON THE WEEKEND, find a little time to prepare healthy meals and snacks for the busy week ahead. For instance, make a large salad and store it in plastic bags or containers so you have salad on hand for lunches or dinners during the week.
- WHENEVER SHOPPING, always check ingredient labels for "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" or "shortening," because this means the product contains trans fats, which are extremely un-heart-healthy. While the FDA requires food manufacturers to reveal the trans fat content on labels, they don't have to if the product contains less than 0.5 gram per serving. And the only safe intake of trans fat is zero.
- WHEN DOING THE WEEKLY SHOPPING, consider going to a different grocery store or market. As you begin to eat better to promote optimal heart health, sometimes such a simple change can help break certain patterns, particularly if you find it difficult to avoid the temptation to buy cookies, chips, and other non-nutritious foods when you shop.
- WHILE AT THE GROCERY STORE, stay on the perimeter of the store, or "shop the edge." Generally, most groceries are arranged so that the really heart-healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, poultry, and fish are found along the perimeter of the store. The interior aisles tend to be stocked with the processed foods you should avoid.
- WHEN EATING OUT, move the bread basket to the other side of the table, far away from you. It's just too easy to demolish two or three rolls with butter. Plus, restaurant bread is almost always made with highly processed white flour, a big contributor to insulin resistance.
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- FIGURE OUT your waist-to-hip ratio to assess your risk for heart attack. Simply measure your waist and divide it by the measurement of your hips. If the number you get is higher than 0.85 in women or 0.9 in men, you're in the danger zone. The higher your waist-to-hip ratio, the higher your risk of heart attack. And the best way to lower that risk if you are over the cutoff point is to lose weight.
- WHEN IT COMES TO daily eating, try to live by the 80/20 Rule. I truly believe that if you eat a heart-healthy, weight-conscious diet 80 percent of the time, you can splurge a little the other 20 percent of the time. Medical studies have even shown that those who are extremely rigid with their diets and obsessive about losing weight fail far more often than those who adopt a more balanced and flexible approach to eating. I am, however, rigid on one thing: No high fructose corn syrup, sodas, or artificially flavored drinks.
- TO HELP CONTROL PORTIONS, eat your restaurant meal as take-out. Studies have shown that people eat up to 40 percent more when they dine out. So you'll probably eat less if you get the meal to-go and enjoy it at home. And eating it at home also gives you the option to have healthier side dishes like steamed veggies and fresh fruit for dessert.
- WHENEVER COOKING VEGETABLES, enjoy at least a few mouthfuls raw while you prepare them. Raw vegetables (and fruits) contain more natural enzymes that enhance your absorption of food nutrients, cleanse and detoxify your system, and promote healthy immune function.
- ONCE A WEEK, eat some fish. Four servings a month of fatty cold-water fish (such as salmon), which contain high levels of heart-healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids, were associated with a 50 percent reduction in heart attack. Just think about it—you can significantly reduce your risk of cardiac death by eating fish just once a week! But make sure it's either baked, broiled, or grilled, since eating fried fish may actually increase your risk of heart failure.
- AT LEAST TWICE A WEEK, throw your favorite fruits and vegetables into a juicer to concoct tasty, heart-healthy drinks that will also help you reach your daily fruit and veggie quota. Such juices are particularly abundant in health-promoting enzymes, many of which are lost in processing—which is why store-bought juice is not always a good bet.
- AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE, spend time with your pet. Studies have found that simply petting an animal can lower blood pressure and heart rate. And getting out and walking with your furry friend can help you (and your pet) keep your weight down, which also benefits the heart. If you don't have a pet, volunteer at a local shelter or ask neighbors if they need help caring for their pets.
- ALWAYS keep your vitamin supplements in a cool, dry place to keep them as fresh and potent as possible and ensure you reap the most health benefits from them. Do not refrigerate vitamins as it may cause certain nutrients to become soft and moist. And never store vitamin supplements on a windowsill or cupboard directly over a kitchen appliance that releases heat.
- AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE, opt for homemade meals over restaurant meals. Most restaurant offerings are very high in salt, making it easy to exceed the entire daily recommended sodium amount by eating just one serving. To keep homemade meals tasty without the salt, cook with fresh herbs and spices, such as basil, garlic, oregano, rosemary chives, parsley, and onion. All of these flavorings also contain natural substances that are good for your health.
- EVERY MONDAY, give yourself a break. More heart attacks occur on Monday than on any other day, which has been linked to excess stress hormones documented among workers on Mondays. So, first try to plan a relaxing Sunday evening and get a good night's sleep. Then on Monday, avoid rushing to work, highly-charged meetings, and heavy exercise before midday on Monday (most cardiac episodes occur between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m.).
- ALWAYS make extra when cooking up heart-healthy soups and stews. These types of meals can easily be made in large quantities and then frozen, to be quickly reheated on those days when you just don't have time to cook. This allows you to drive past the drive-throughs and all their less-than-nutritious offerings.
- EVERY DAY, try to eat your lightest meal at the end of the day. This will help you maintain your weight, as well as ensure optimal digestion, since evening tends to be the time when the body is quieter and the metabolism is slower.
- AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE, make meat a condiment—not a main course. The notably heart-healthy diet of Mediterranean people features sauces that are flavored with meat instead of large chunks of meat as a main entrée.
- WHEN EATING FISH, opt for varieties that are less likely to be high in heavy metals such as mercury or industrial pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls. These healthier fish include wild Alaskan salmon, anchovies, sardines, whitefish, Atlantic halibut, sea trout, flounder, sole, scamp (baby grouper), haddock, scrod, and cod.
- EVERY DAY seek out healthy ways to nurture yourself. Get a massage, a manicure, or a haircut. Take a hot bath, go to a movie, or read for enjoyment. Rewarding yourself daily with such healthy pleasures instead of food rewards keeps your weight and stress levels low and your heart-health high.
- EVERY MEALTIME eat some lean protein. Protein curbs hunger more effectively than fat or carbohydrates. So to keep your weight and appetite down, try to eat about 15 to 20 grams of protein with every meal. And if you find yourself feeling hungry an hour or two after eating, it means you probably need to up the amount of protein in your meals.
- INSTEAD OF USING NONSTICK BAKING SPRAYS, opt for heart-healthy olive oil. Here's how: Fill a kitchen spray bottle with light or extra-light olive oil and use in place of nonstick baking sprays. The potent antioxidants in olive oil make this a much healthier option when cooking.
- EVERY DAY drink a cup or two of ginger tea. Ginger helps thin the blood, reduces inflammation, and also has some cholesterol-lowering ability. Organic ginger tea is available in health food stores. You can also make your own from ginger root. Simply chop up the root into small pieces and boil for about five minutes.
- EVERY DAY, do what you can to eat a high-fiber diet. Research has shown that increasing fiber intake is an effective and easy way to protect your heart. One study found a stunning 29 percent reduction in heart disease for every 10-gram increase in fiber. Try to eat at least 30 to 40 grams of fiber per day, which is easy to achieve with a diet that is based in fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, such as whole wheat, oats, bran fiber, and buckwheat.
- ALWAYS note the serving size on the label of any packaged food you eat. That's because many times the portions stated on the label are much smaller than what you would normally consume, and so you end up taking in considerably more calories than you think you are. And excess calories mean excess weight, which is a real detriment to heart health.
- ON A REGULAR BASIS, eat seaweed to protect your thyroid. After diabetes, thyroid disease is the most commonly occurring glandular disorder in America, and it can have a serious impact on your heart health. In order to ensure proper thyroid function, you must have proper iodine levels in your body. Eating seaweed is the best way to take in iodine safely and naturally. Your local grocery store may carry a few types of seaweed in the international foods section, but you can probably find a larger selection at health food stores, Asian grocery stores, and online.
- AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE, add cinnamon to recipes. Studies show that cinnamon stimulates circulation and enhances the ability of insulin to metabolize glucose. This helps control blood sugar levels by imitating insulin in insulin receptors, making those receptors more sensitive to insulin. Try cinnamon in unexpected recipes like chili and tomato sauce, as well as in familiar, simple dishes like a steaming bowl of oatmeal or on a slice of whole-wheat toast.
- AS A RULE, avoid artificial sweeteners. When you consume an artificial sweetener, the sweet taste on your tongue triggers the release of insulin in the body to offset the expected sugar. But since there isn't actually any sugar in what's consumed, the insulin goes to work on whatever little sugar is in the body—resulting in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Hypoglycemia makes you feel hungry, especially for other sweet foods, so you may end up eating more and gaining weight. It's a vicious cycle.
- AS PART OF YOUR WALKING ROUTINE, try to do your workouts outside whenever possible. Studies show that people engage in activity longer when they are outdoors and they also work more muscles because of the changing terrain. Walking outside instead of on a treadmill also allows you to appreciate your surroundings—the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations—as well as gain exposure to a little natural light, which is a natural mood lifter.
- MOST DAYS OF THE WEEK, drink some pomegranate juice. In a recent study, a group drinking pomegranate juice daily saw a 20 percent drop in systolic blood pressure, a 19 percent reduction in oxidized LDL antibodies, and a decrease in intramedial thickness of the carotid artery walls. It's speculated that these health benefits were due to the abundant antioxidant polyphenols in pomegranates. Because the juice is so sweet and tart, dilute it with filtered or sparkling water—about 2 ounces of pomegranate juice with 6 ounces of water.
- AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE, laugh out loud. Research has shown that laughter produces endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that reduce pain and generate a sense of well-being. And other research indicates that laughter also creates healthier functioning blood vessels. Specifically, laughter appears to cause the endothelial lining of blood vessels to dilate more robustly and increase blood flow. So, feel good about watching your favorite sit-coms or funny movies.
- ON A DAILY BASIS, give thanks. Research has confirmed the therapeutic power of prayer, showing that people who attend church frequently or pray regularly have lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, and suicide. Those who pray have even been shown to live longer than those who do not. If prayer is something new to you, begin with a simple daily reflection on the people and things you are grateful for in your life and offer thanks.
- A FEW TIMES PER YEAR, get an accurate measurement of your body-fat percentage. A body-fat measurement lets you know your proportion of fat to lean muscle, a key indicator of your overall health. You can purchase your own body-fat monitor to use at home (a hand-held device, scale-style, or calipers) or have your body fat measured at a health club or gym. Generally, healthy body fat percentages range from 20 to 27 percent for women over 30, and 17 to 23 percent for men over 30. If you are actively pursuing a weight-loss plan, check your body-fat measurement more often—every six weeks or so.
- AS PART OF YOUR WEEKLY GROCERY SHOPPING, add a stop at a health food/whole foods store or farmer's market. These are great places to stock up on organic products and unique produce options that might not be available at your regular big-chain grocery store. And the colors and smells at these markets can turn a routine chore into a very pleasant sensory experience.
- WHENEVER POSSIBLE, work out in the morning. Exercising first thing eliminates the possibility that the day's schedule will interfere with you completing your workout. If you put exercise off until “later,” things can pile up, and before you know it the day is over. Exercising in the morning signifies you commitment and intention to make exercise a priority.
- WHEN EATING AT HOME, use smaller dinnerware. Research has shown that people serve themselves larger portions and ultimately consume more when they eat off of bigger plates and serve themselves with bigger utensils. So to help control calorie intake, eat off of salad-sized plates and use smaller mugs, bowls, and serving spoons.
- ALWAYS keep your kitchen stocked with the tools you need to prepare healthy meals. Having the right gadgets makes healthy meal prep easy, making it more likely that you will eat healthfully. Items to consider include a salad spinner to quickly dry greens and berries, a couple of high-quality knives for chopping and paring, and a juicer.
- WHEN YOU BEGIN A WEIGHT-LOSS PLAN, keep a food journal. A food journal provides a snapshot of everything you eat for a few days along with your feelings as you eat. This is often very helpful because so many of us are not aware of what we're eating, how much we're eating, or the emotions that trigger us to eat. And you can't change unhealthy eating patterns unless you know what they are in the first place.
- WHEN TRAVELLING, bring along healthy food options. It can be very frustrating trying to find fresh, whole foods when you are on the road. As an alternative to fast food, stash some healthy options in a bag. Apples, pears, carrots, and celery sticks travel well, as do nuts and seeds. Even consider packing a box of whole-grain cereal and have an evening meal in your hotel room with soy milk or low fat milk from room service, plus the fruit you've brought along.
- BEFORE HEADING TO A RESTAURANT, see if their menu is online. It's hard to make a healthy choice at a lot of restaurants, especially when you are smelling the delicious foods around you and being swayed by what your companions are ordering. Simply decide on a healthy selection from the online menu, then order it without even looking at the menu when you get to the restaurant.
- WHEN THE WAITER SERVES YOU, immediately have half of your entrée boxed in a “to go” container. Most restaurant entrees are enormous, so starting with just half on your plate offers more than enough food for that meal and leaves the other half for lunch or dinner the next day. And if dessert is a must, go halvsies again—splitting it with one of your dining companions.
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Dr. Stephen Sinatra is a highly respected and sought-after cardiologist and nutritionist with more than 30 years of clinical practice, research, and study. His integrative approach to heart health focuses on reducing inflammation in the body and maximizing the heart's ability to produce and use energy. More About Dr. Sinatra
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