February is National Heart Health month, and for a good reason. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States, taking close to 1 million lives each year, an estimated 1 in every 3 deaths in the United States.
According to a 2017 health statistics report published by the American Heart Association, “Cardiovascular diseases claim more lives each year than all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease combined.” And what a sobering statistic that is.
Heart disease is a general term for heart conditions and diseases, including congenital heart defects. For the sake of this article, heart disease will be referred to in the case of coronary artery disease (CAD), also known as cardiovascular disease (CVD). Atherosclerosis, the main cause of strokes and heart attacks, is the hardening of the coronary arteries from buildup of plaque. This buildup of plaque narrows these important arteries, causing blood to flow slower through the heart, jeopardizing adequate oxygenated blood flow and circulation to other parts of the body such as the legs and arms.
When plaque buildup is so severe that there are blockages, oxygenated blood cannot get to the heart muscles or up to the brain. Without oxygenated blood, parts of the heart tissues and muscle die, causing myocardial infarctions (heart attacks). Strokes can also result when part of the brain does not get proper blood flow due to a blockage.
The AHA gauges cardiovascular health by monitoring key health factors and behaviors, they define as “Life’s Simple 7”:
>> Not smoking
>> Physical activity (sedentary lifestyle and inactivity vs activity and fitness)
>> Healthy diet
>> Body weight (obesity vs healthy body weight)
>> Control of cholesterol
>> Control of blood pressure
>> Control of blood sugar (monitoring diabetes and pre-diabetes risk)
It is also important to note that family history of heart disease does have an influence on heart health. We cannot change our family genetics; however, we can most certainly adjust our daily habits to help deter plaque buildup and subsequent atherosclerosis. For the sake of time, we will not dive into all seven factors, but we will address the nutrition, or “healthy diet” aspect of the AHA’s Simple 7. Subsequently, getting your nutrition on the right trajectory can actually help with body weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar control.
So, let me introduce you to the Mediterranean Diet: a diet void of meal replacement bars or apple cider vinegar. This way of eating is for real people wanting to eat real foods, wanting real heart beating changes. Research has found that the Mediterranean diet can help to reduce the risk for many diseases like heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, and even Alzheimer’s.
Heralding from the Mediterranean region of Europe, this style of cuisine emphasizes healthy oils and fat found in beans, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, and seafood. Here’s how it works:
>> Consume at almost every meal: Fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, olive oil, and whole grains
>> Fish and seafood are eaten at least twice a week
>> Eat in moderate amounts, daily or weekly: Poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt
>> Eat sparingly: Red meat and sweets
>> Red wine can be consumed daily, in moderate amounts (One 5-ounce glass for women/ day; Two 5-ounce glasses for men/ day)
It is important to note a few things that are at the core of the Mediterranean Diet. One, drinking water is essential, as is daily physical activity and intentional exercise. Second, fruits and vegetables are pinnacle, and should be eaten at every meal. Aim for a variety of produce. “Eat the rainbow.” Meaning, different colors of fruits and vegetables give you different vitamins and minerals. Therefore, eating a range of colors gives you a range of tastes and nutrients.
Lastly, your proteins (eggs, poultry, fish, seafood), and vegetables for that matter, should be cooked using heart-healthy fats like olive oil or canola oil instead of butter or vegetable oils, which can lead to plaque build up. In addition to garlic, onion, or peppers, don’t be afraid to experiment with fresh or dried herbs for flavor. Go easy on the salt shaker. Extra salt in our foods leads to high blood pressure, and high blood pressure puts stress on the heart, which can lead to serious cardiovascular events.
As always, please stay in contact with your doctor and take medications as prescribed. If you need assistance with quitting smoking, please talk with a medical professional about the resources and support available to you. You can check out the AHA or Mayo Clinic website for heart-healthy recipes and additional educational information. Talking to a dietitian/nutritionist for more specifics on the Mediterranean Diet and individualized nutrition could be beneficial for you.
Please take care of your heart; it’s the one muscle you need your whole life.