Take Control of Caring for Your Heart

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Seniors ExercisingSeniors at East Rockingham Senior Center participate in “Taking Control” of their heart health with chair exercise. Photo credit Cheri Bennett.

To improve awareness about cardiovascular disease, in 1963 Congress declared February  “American Heart Month”. Since this declaration, researchers have made significant gains in understanding how to control our heart health through diet, exercise, and lifestyle. The most significant benefits are gained by eating healthy foods, limiting sodium, limiting saturated fats, limiting added sugars, limiting alcohol, observing portion control, managing excess weight, exercising, managing stress, and quitting smoking.

Eating healthy foods can be a delicious adventure! Foods to choose for heart health include fruits and vegetables. Green leafy vegetables such as  collard greens, kale, and spinach, are great! Fruits contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Enjoy apples, bananas, oranges, pears, and strawberries, to name just a few.

Whole grains are healthy for your heart. Whole grains contain the entire grain, the bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole grains differ from “refined grains” such as white flour have been processed to remove the germ and bran. While this provides a smoother texture and mild taste, processing strips away the nutrients and fiber. Some examples of whole grains are brown rice, oats, corn, barley, wild rice, and quinoa. Look for “whole wheat” as the first ingredient in bread and pasta. The dietary fiber in whole grains can help improve blood cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and even type 2 diabetes, according to the American Heart Association. In addition to dietary fiber whole grains contain nutrients such as thiamin(Vitamin B1), riboflavin (Vitamin B2), niacin (Vitamin B3), folate (Vitamin B9), iron, magnesium, and selenium. All of these nutrients are important for various body functions such as carrying oxygen in the blood, forming new cells, regulating the thyroid, and maintaining a healthy immune system.

Limiting sodium is a big win for your heart! Salt is the most common form of sodium we consume. While the body needs a small amount of sodium to function properly, consuming too much can wreak havoc on your heart. It can raise blood pressure, which may put the body at risk for heart disease and stroke. Avoiding processed foods such as canned soup can reduce your sodium intake. Read the label to find out how much sodium is in an item! The percentage per serving is part of the recommended limit consumed in a day.

Limiting saturated fats is another recommendation. Saturated fats come from animal sources and include fats include butter, cheese, and fatty meats. The solid fat in the pot after the food cools is saturated fat. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, saturated fats should make up less than 10% of your daily diet.

While limiting saturated fats, use oils that are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats remain liquid at room temperature. These fats can improve blood cholesterol, stabilize heart rhythms, and ease inflammation according to researchers at Harvard University. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive, peanut, and canola oils. They are also found in avocados and nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans, as well as pumpkin and sesame seeds. Polyunsaturated fats are found in walnuts, flax seeds, fish, and oils from sunflower, corn, soybean, and flax seed.

Limiting added sugars is important for heart health. Some foods contain natural sugars, such as fruit, but often food contains added sugars. Sugar-sweetened soft drinks and sweet snacks are the biggest culprits. Added sugars include corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose, brown sugar, raw sugar, and sucrose. High levels of sugar consumption may cause obesity and diabetes and diets high in sugar have been linked to high blood pressure as well. Sugar has also been found to increase inflammation in the body which can add to stress on the heart and blood vessels, and this stress can lead to an increased risk for stroke. To lower sugar intake, choose beverages such as water, unsweet tea, 100% vegetable or 100% fruit juice. You can add half water to the 100% fruit juice to cut the sugar further. For snacks or desserts choose no-sugar-added foods such as cooked apples with cinnamon.

Frequent alcohol consumption can add calories and contributes to weight gain. Alcohol consumption can also raise blood levels and levels of triglyceride fats in the body. It can also impact the heart muscles’ ability to pump blood, called cardiomyopathy. Additionally, smoking and vaping are other habits that can increase your chances of heart disease. Avoiding secondhand smoke is also important.

A huge part of weight management is portion control. By reading the nutrition fact labels on foods purchased, you will see the recommended serving size and the amount of nutrients in each serving. Limiting fast foods and processed foods will also help you manage your intake of sodium and saturated fats.

Exercise is also essential to heart health. Exercise helps muscles pull oxygen from the blood which reduces the need for the heart to pump more blood into the muscles. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins medical, exercise reduces stress hormones that impact on the heart. Exercise also increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol and helps control triglycerides. Managing weight and stress is easier when exercise is a part of the daily routine.

To find out more about ways to take care of your heart or the NC Steps to Health Take Control Classes for your office or community contact Cheri Bennett at 910-997-8255 or email at  cheri_bennett@ncsu.edu .

The N.C. Cooperative Extension, Richmond County Center helps provide research-based education and technology to the producers and citizens of this great county. The office is located at 123 Caroline St. in Rockingham, or visit richmond.ces.ncsu.edu for more information.