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February 1, 2012

Love Your Heart

The Hood Answer Mom, Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.

Considering that it's only about as big as a fist, your heart is one amazing organ. Every day, all day long, it beats with the sole purpose of getting blood where it needs to go.
All too often, we take this mighty organ for granted, but celebrating February as American Heart Month reminds us to take care of our heart health, an especially important pursuit for women who often put the well-being of others before their own.  
Every minute, heart disease claims the life of one American woman over the age of 20. In addition, more women die of heart disease than any other cause, including all forms of cancer. 
The symptoms of heart disease can take decades to show up, but they are years in the making. It's never too early to do what you can to support your heart health, and your family's.

Heart Health Check List

Along with avoiding cigarette smoking and managing stress to the best of your ability, eating right and regular physical activity go a long way to head off heart disease. 

Achieve and maintain a healthy weight .  Being overweight strains your heart, forcing it to beat harder to pump blood.  Overweight people are more likely to develop high blood pressure, and to have excessive blood levels of total cholesterol and triglycerides (fat). A healthy weight also reduces the risk for diabetes, which is a strong risk factor for heart disease.
Maintain healthy levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood.   Cholesterol clogs arteries, restricting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to cells and tissues. When blockages occur in the arteries near your heart, the risk for heart attack increases.  A high concentration of HDL ("good") cholesterol, is desirable because HDL removes from the body compounds that clog arteries, while LDL ("bad") cholesterol contributes to clogging.

Keep blood pressure in check . When you have high blood pressure, your heart must pump harder to get blood where it needs to go.  As a result, arteries suffer tiny tears, creating scar tissue that encourages blockages. An ideal blood pressure is 119/79, and preferably lower. If one or both blood pressure numbers are higher than that, talk to your doctor about how to lower them. Check blood pressure on a regular basis, as it tends to rise with age.

Work it out .  According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines (PAG) for Americans, regular physical activity reduces the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and sudden heart attack. 

Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking briskly or low-impact aerobics class, each week, or half as much as vigorous physical activity, including aerobic dance classes, biking more than 10 miles per hour, or jogging.  The PAG guidelines also recommend resistance training (such as weight lifting) at least twice a week to improve muscle strength and bone health. Children need at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.

Eat to Your Heart's Content

A balanced eating plan rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of dairy  products and other lower-fat protein foods  is the best approach to having the healthiest heart possible.

• Focus on fat. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends unsaturated fat for the majority of your fat calories. Unsaturated fats, found mainly in fish, nuts, seeds, and oils from plants, such as canola oil and olive oil, may help lower blood cholesterol levels when you substitute them for saturated and trans fats in the diet. The AHA recommends two fish meals a week to get enough omega-3 fats.

• Fill up on fiber.  Fiber-rich diets may help reduce total cholesterol levels in the blood. Fiber also helps to keep you fuller for longer, which helps to promote a healthier weight. Aim for about 28 grams of fiber every day on a 2,000-calorie eating plan. 

• Pump up the potassium.  Potassium plays a key role in maintaining fluid balance and normal heart function. Potassium may curb elevated blood pressure by contributing to more flexible arteries that resist the injury that contributes to clogging, and by helping the body to get rid of excess sodium.  Fresh and lightly processed foods, including fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, have the most protein.

Elizabeth M. Ward

Elizabeth M. Ward

Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D., is a writer, nutrition consultant, and mother of three. She is the author of several books, including MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better and Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, & After Pregnancy . Ward is also a contributing writer for Muscle & Fitness Hers and Men's Fitness magazines.

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