By Matthew Lucks, M.D.
It seems like every few weeks, there’s new advice about how to take care of your heart. And in some cases, advice from one expert seems to directly contradict another. Should you stick to a low-fat diet, or eat more chocolate? Should you avoid alcohol, or make it a point to drink red wine?
To help clear up any confusion, let’s look at the basics of smart heart care:
Lose Excess Weight
The more extra weight you carry around, the harder your heart has to work just to get you through the day. Excess weight increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes. As you might imagine, none of these bode well for your heart. For many people, just a few changes in eating and activity can result in significant weight loss. Lose the weight, and you’ll not only look and feel better, you’ll have a healthier heart.
Eat (and Drink) Smart
The smarter you are about what you put in your mouth, the easier it will be to maintain a healthy weight—and a healthy heart. Build most of your meals around fresh, whole foods such as vegetables and fruits. Many of these are high in antioxidants that help promote a healthy heart. And this where the dark chocolate and red wine come in to play; these, too, contain antioxidants that can benefit your heart. (Too much of either, however, can do more harm than good.) Also include whole grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, and protein sources such as fish, poultry, lean meats, beans and tofu. Try to avoid saturated fats, processed foods and “empty” calories such as chips, pastries and soft drinks that provide little nutrition and lots of fat, sugar and salt.
Watch Your Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is measured in two numbers. The first number (systolic) indicates the pressure on the walls of your blood vessels when your heart beats; the second (diastolic) indicates the pressure between beats. Ideally, your blood pressure should be below 120/80. When the pressure measures higher than normal, you may have a greater risk of heart disease. High blood pressure has no symptoms, so have yours checked every year.
Check Your Cholesterol
There are two kinds of cholesterol: LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and HDL (“good” cholesterol). A build-up of LDL cholesterol can clog your arteries, which increases your risk of heart attack or stroke. “Good” HDL cholesterol carries “bad” cholesterol away. Ask your doctor how often you should have your cholesterol levels checked. A low-fat diet and regular exercise can help keep your cholesterol levels where they should be; in some cases, your doctor may also prescribe medication.
Your heart is a muscle, and like any muscle, exercise will make it stronger. Commit to getting in at least 30 minutes of physical activity almost every day. Choose something you enjoy, such as walking, biking or swimming. If you like to watch TV in the evening, walk on a treadmill or elliptical trainer during your favorite shows instead of sitting on the couch. If time is an issue, exercise in “chunks” of 10 minutes or whatever works with your schedule.
Smoking is considered the most important risk factor in the development of cardiovascular disease. And, it is the most preventable. So it’s hard to believe anyone still smokes, especially since it’s been proven beyond a doubt to raise your blood pressure, put a lot of extra stress on your heart, and make it more likely that you’ll develop a blood clot – all of which can put you on the fast track to heart disease. Smoking is also the most preventable risk factor. Quit, and your risk starts to drop within days. Secondhand smoke can also harm your cardiovascular system, so avoid smokers and smoky places, too.
In addition to making lifestyle choices that benefit your heart, talk to your doctor about other risk factors that may influence your heart’s health; for example, a family history of heart problems. Together, you and your doctor can assess your risk and determine a plan for optimal health. It may even include a bite of chocolate.
Dr. Lucks is a cardiologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. For more information or for a physician referral, please call 1-800-SCRIPPS (1-800-727-4777).