February is American Heart Month, a time to remind us that heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, with about one in three deaths from a heart attack or stroke. In fact, heart disease is the number one killer of women and effects more women than all cancers combined. This is the bad news. Here is the good news: There are many things you can do to help keep your heart healthy. First, you must know your numbers. Next, realize that you have the power to make healthy lifestyle changes — including following a heart-healthy diet — to improve your numbers.
Here are the numbers you should pay attention to:
The goal: Less than 200 mg/dl.
Cholesterol comes from two places: We make it naturally in our body and it also comes from the food we eat. That said, if you have a family history of high cholesterol, there is a chance that you will also have high cholesterol. Therefore, it is even more important to maintain a healthy weight or lose weight, if you need to.
How you can improve it: By losing 10 percent of your body weight, you reduce your risk of contracting many chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Since the food you eat also impacts your total cholesterol, you should strive for a heart-healthy diet that reduces fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.
Ideally, you should have no more than 30 percent of your calories from total fat and no more than 7 percent from saturated fat. As general guideline, make sure you do not have more than 300 mg of cholesterol in any serving of food. Also, remember that cholesterol is only found in animal products.
High Density Lipoprotein (HDL)
The goal: greater than 40 mg/dl for men or greater than 50 mg/dl for women.
This is the good or “happy” cholesterol. Ideally, everyone should try to strive for an HDL greater than 60 mg/dl. This is known to help protect the heart against heart disease. Keeping your HDL at proper levels helps to keep your arteries “slippery” so that the LDL (bad cholesterol) does not clog them.
How you can improve it: The main thing you can do to help increase your HDL is exercise, exercise, exercise! From a nutrition standpoint, cutting out trans fats and reducing saturated fats are also known to help improve HDL numbers. There is also some evidence that consuming alcohol in moderation has an impact on HDL, with moderation meaning one alcoholic beverage for women per day and maximum of two for a man.
Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL)
The goal: Less than 100 mg/dl.
This is the bad or “lousy” cholesterol. If you have higher levels of LDL running through your arteries, there is increased potential for clogged arteries, which in turn increases your risk for heart attack or stroke.
How you can improve it: The best control you have is to keep your total fat and saturated fat limited and cut out trans fats. If you know that you consume a lot of these fats — they’re common in commercial baked goods, fried foods, shortenings and margarines — make a conscience effort to eat less of them.
The goal: Less than 150 mg/dl.
Triglycerides are a form of fat made in the body. TGLs can be greatly effected by lifestyle. Usually, high triglyceride levels are indicative of high total cholesterol, higher LDL and lower HDL levels. Also obesity and overweightedness negatively impacts TGLs, along with overconsumption of carbohydrates.
How you can improve it: Portion control and balance are key, along with regular exercise, drinking alcohol in moderation and tobacco cessation.
Blood Pressure (BP)
The goal: A normal blood pressure would be 120/80 mm/Hg or lower.
Blood pressure is the force of the blood pressing against the artery walls. If it is regularly higher than the above reading, then you may be suffering from high blood pressure, which is also known as hypertension.
How you can improve it: By exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and reducing your sodium intake. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we limit sodium to no more than 2,300 mg per day. If you have hypertension, you should limit your sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day. (Just for perspective, one teaspoon of regular table salt already has 2,300 mg of sodium in it. As Americans, we are known to over salt our food and consume higher amounts of processed foods that are also high in sodium.)
Now that you know where you should be for proper heart health, be sure to get your physical done and follow up to get these results and know your numbers. Moreover, if your levels are not in a normal range, take the initiative to do what you can to keep your heart healthy. You can do it!