February is National Heart Month and not just because of Valentine’s Day. Heart health is vital, and for women as well as men. According to the American Heart Association, one in 2.4 American women will lose their lives to heart disease and stroke–the first and third biggest killers of women. In comparison, breast cancer kills one in 29. So let’s look at V.A.L.E.N.T.I.N.E.S. Day from another vantage point—heart health and what’s needed to reduce the risk of heart disease for ourselves and for our loved ones:
Vitamin D plays a significant role in the cellular structure of the heart and its pumping ability, and a deficiency can lead to heart disease and stroke. Although Vitamin D is created after direct exposure to sunlight, our appropriate efforts to protect our skin from cancer can block this path. It’s difficult to get enough Vitamin D from food, short of drinking four glasses of milk daily. Ask your doctor to check your blood level of Vitamin D and ask whether supplements are appropriate.
Avoid “bad fats” like hydrogenated and saturated ones and eliminate trans-fats altogether. Replace them with vegetable oils such as olive, canola, corn and soy and those supplemented with omega-3s. Do recognize that all fats have the same number of calories, so use even “good” fats sparingly.
Lose that belly fat as it increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer. Belly fat is usually the first area to shrink with moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and strength training with weights.
Exercise has other heart-health benefits: It can help control blood lipid abnormalities, blood pressure and diabetes, as well as make the heart work more efficiently during exercise and rest. Even after suffering a heart attack, people who embark on a graduated exercise program have better rates of survival, as well as a better quality of life.
Note package labeling in prepared foods and look for the types and amounts of fats and sugars. Choose foods absent in trans-fats and low in other “bad fats” and look for “no added sugar” or “unsweetened” products.
Take time each day for relaxation. Stress contributes to heart disease by turning on hormones that cause a rapid heartbeat, rise in blood pressure, increased turbulence in the bloodstream, and—some scientists believe—speed up the process of fatty material collecting in the coronary arteries. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation and tai chi can break the cycle.
Inform yourself about your blood pressure, blood sugar and lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides). If you’re not in optimum ranges, discuss with your doctor how to get there.
Nix sugars. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily for women and 9 for men. This isn’t much–for example a bottle of cola with 44 grams of sugar contains 10 teaspoons! Be aware that “naturally sweetened” products often contain added fruit juice or lactose from milk, which are added sugars. These recommendations do not include natural sugars, like those in fruit.
Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables and grains.
Stop smoking–the major preventable risk factor for heart disease. Smoking increases blood pressure, decreases exercise tolerance and increases the risk of abnormal blood clots leading directly to heart attacks and strokes.
Don’t just limit heart health habits to National Heart Month—extend them to every day of the year. But, on Valentine’s Day, you’re allowed to have that one piece of chocolate!