You may be treating your sweetheart this February, but don’t forget it’s also American Heart Month... so give your own heart some extra love.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America for both men and women.
But, the good news is many of these deaths and risk factors are preventable.
Listen in as Alissa Rumsey shares her top lifestyle tips to decrease your risk of heart disease.
Melanie Cole (Host): You may be treating your sweetheart this February, but don’t forget: this is also American Heart Month. Give your own heart some extra love. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in this country. My guest today is Alissa Rumsey. She’s a New York City based registered dietitian, personal trainer, and media spokesperson. Welcome to the show, Alissa. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about Heart Disease Month and why it’s so important that we pay attention to our hearts at this time?
Alissa Rumsey (Guest): Sure. February is National Heart Month, and it’s a time for everyone to really understand the importance of heart disease and to know the risk factors for it, to know what can prevent heart disease, what can improve heart disease, and to know what to check in with their doctor for. Some of the risk factors for heart disease are things that we can’t really feel, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. There are many people that have untreated and unknown high blood pressure and diabetes because you can’t really feel that they are a really big risk factor for heart disease. So February is a time where we do a lot of outreach and a lot of education about what heart disease is and what the risk factors are and what you should do to try to prevent it.
Melanie: Tell us a little bit about some of the risk factors that we can control.
Alissa: Sure. There are certain things that we can’t, but then there are a lot that we can. Many of those revolve around diet, around getting to a healthy weight, being active, also certain lifestyle things as smoking. Quitting smoking can really improve your risk for heart disease, as well as, like I mentioned before, knowing if you have high blood pressure, and if you do, making sure you’re controlling that; knowing your risk for diabetes, and if you do have diabetes, keeping your blood sugar under control; then also making sure you’re getting your cholesterol levels checked and under control as well.
Melanie: Tell us a little bit about cholesterol and its role in heart disease. When people get their cholesterol taken, Alissa, they don’t understand the numbers that they see. Tell us a little bit about cholesterol and where we might find cholesterol so we can steer clear of it.
Alissa: Sure. The cholesterol numbers that you get from your doctor are going to be made up of four different values. You have your total cholesterol, which ideally we want to have less than 200. Then you have what is called LDL, which we consider “bad cholesterol,” and that should be under 160. Then HDL is good cholesterol, and we actually want that number high. We want it over 40 and ideally much higher than that. Then the last number is triglycerides, which we want below 150. What happens with cholesterol is when you have too much cholesterol and, more importantly, too much of the bad cholesterol that’s circulating in your blood, it can slowly build up along the inner walls of your arteries, and especially those arteries that feed into your heart and into your brain. Together with some other substances, this cholesterol can form a deposit called plaque, which makes your arteries narrow and less flexible. If a clot forms and then blocks the artery, you can have a heart attack or stroke.
Melanie: Wow! So the food we eat is so, so important in our risk for heart disease as well as these lifestyles—smoking, keeping your blood pressure under control, making sure your blood sugars and diabetes, that sort of thing, is under control. Tell us about heart-healthy foods that might be in our diets, that we should have in our diets to help us.
Alissa: Sure. The biggest thing I really like to stress is, number one, eating more plant food, and then along with that, including more anti-inflammatory food. Many of those foods are plant foods. Plant foods are really powerful in helping to fight heart disease. You get a lot of nutrients, a lot of fiber, and lots of variety that you can cook many different ways. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables such as broccoli or sweet potatoes, chard, strawberries, blueberries, spinach, those are all really great plant foods to include. They all have anti-inflammatory properties. Along with that, there are other foods as well that I really stress to include in your diet. That includes fatty fish, such as salmon or tuna, legumes and beans and nuts, like white beans, walnuts, or flaxseed, as well as a lot of the heart-healthy fat. So that would be like olive oil. You find that in also avocado. Then there are certain spices that are anti-inflammatory, such as turmeric and cinnamon as well.
Melanie: That’s great advice. I love avocado and I love turmeric, too. Really wonderful anti-inflammatory foods, as you stressed. Now, speaking of stress, what role does stress play in heart disease risk, and what can we do to manage some of that?
Alissa: High levels of stress hormone can actually lead to release of pro-inflammatory chemicals. And that pro-inflammation increases your risk for heart disease. Everybody has stress. It’s normal to get angry now and then, but if stress or anger are happening a lot, that’s really a problem, and you can have consistent high levels of that pro-inflammatory chemicals, which is not good. It’s important to try to reduce stress as much as possible. I like to tell my clients try to practice techniques for managing stress such as muscle relaxation, deep breathing. A lot of my clients will do meditation, just anything to bring your mind down and help to control that stress.
Melanie: What about exercise? And what role does that play in preventing heart disease and/or keeping it under control if you have already been diagnosed?
Alissa: Exercise helps in a variety of ways. First of all, it’s going to help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, which is important because being overweight increases your risk for heart disease. In addition, it can actually help control your diabetes. It can help bring blood sugar levels down. It can help control your cholesterol level. Then it can also help control your high blood pressure. Exercise really affects all those risk factors for heart disease in a positive way and can help you reduce your overall risk.
Melanie: How much is enough?
Alissa: Generally, I say as long as you get your doctor’s okay, especially if you have not been exercising, try to aim for at least 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. That number sometimes frightens people. It sounds like a lot, an hour of exercise every day. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to be in the gym for an hour every day. Every little bit counts. Now, the step counters are all the rage now. Our phones can count our steps for us. So I like to encourage everyone to try to get at least 10,000 steps a day because that’s really showing that you’re moving, that you’re getting enough physical activity in. And then if you can aim to get some more intentional physical activities and intentional exercise at least three or four days a week, that’s a pretty good start.
Melanie: Now, let’s talk about losing weight, because maintaining a healthy weight is really so important in the prevention of heart disease and it’s Heart Disease Month, Alissa, but what about losing? That is so hard compared to maintaining.
Alissa: You’re right. It is really, really tough. Our bodies are sort of made to hold on to the calories that we’re eating. And as we get older and as we build muscle mass, our metabolism starts to drop, which means that you need to eat less calories just to maintain your weight, let alone lose weight. It is really difficult, but it’s not impossible. And as you mention, losing weight can really decrease the risk of heart disease. It can help you lower your blood pressure and control your diabetes as well. I think the important thing is to -- calories are important, calories in versus calories out. We’ve heard that before. You need to look at your overall portions that you’re eating, but I like to stress the foods we talked about before that you want to eat more of, so putting those fruits and vegetables on your plate first. Those have a lot of fiber. They’re going to fill you up and give you a lot of volume, but for not a lot of calories. Then trying to make sure you’re emphasizing the protein as well. Protein is also going to keep you full for a lot longer as well as the heart-healthy fats that I mentioned before—like the olive oil, for example. If you’re doing that and then having a little bit of carbohydrate on the side, and you’re doing that, you’re going to feel full with less food, and that’s going to help the weight come off.
Melanie: In just the last minute, Alissa, give your best advice if you had to tell everybody the most important things you want to tell them about Heart Disease Month and preventing heart disease.
Alissa: I would say make sure you’re eating a lot of plant food, get to a healthy weight, and really get active.
Melanie: That’s a great summary. It’s really great advice, and it certainly is the best way for people to really embrace this Heart Disease Month and actually embracing it all year round, really. As Alissa said, keep your weight at a healthy weight. Manage your stress and your anger. Follow that heart-healthy diet she discussed. Keep active. Know your numbers, your cholesterol numbers, your glucose levels. Those are all ways that you quit smoking. Those are all ways that you really can help your heart in this Heart Disease Month and all-year round. You are listening to Eat Right Radio with our good friends from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For more information, you can go to eatright.org. That’s eatright.org. This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening, and stay well.