Happy Heart Month! It seems appropriate that the month of loooooove is associated with a campaign to increase awareness about heart health. And with heart disease as the leading cause of death for men AND women – well, it’s clear we could all use some time to check out how that ticker is doing. Let that sink in for a moment…the thing that kills most people in this country isn’t guns, car accidents, plane crashes, shark attacks, fires, or the flu (you know, things most people wildly fear) – but [mostly preventable] heart disease, which kills more than all of those things COMBINED.
So take a moment to appreciate all the work your heart puts in, and think about what you could do to improve blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose, and arterial flexibility. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so see if you got caught up in any of these myths!
Myth: sodium in your food should be the first thing you consider to control blood pressure.
While it’s true that many processed foods are high in sodium and that sodium can elevate blood pressure, it’s far from the whole picture when it comes to heart health. Recent studies point to the sodium/potassium ratio as more closely associated with blood pressure than either sodium or potassium on their own. All fresh fruits and veggies are naturally higher in potassium than sodium, and usually by a lot - there are 152mg of potassium in a serving of avocado, and less than 3mg of sodium! So just by having a few servings of raw veggies, you’re doing a lot to correct the balance. According to nutrition guidelines, we should be getting roughly twice the amount of potassium as sodium (4700mg to 2300mg), but the studies that saw benefits found that even having the same amount of potassium as sodium helped to lower blood pressure in people with hypertension.
Truth: sugar and carb intake can increase fat circulation in your blood
Even if you’re eating a low fat diet, the form of fat that circulates in your blood – triglycerides – can get elevated. What gives? Well, your body is extremely good at turning sugar into fat, so a diet high in sugary foods or even refined carbohydrate-rich foods (I’m looking at you, white bagels, white rice, and cheap crackers!) can translate into clogged arteries. So you can’t skate by on “low fat” alternative foods that boost flavor with added sugar and still expect to see any kind of benefit. Sugar is also damaging because it can physically damage your arteries – those tiny little molecules bashing into the walls can cause micro-tears that need to be fixed with your body’s “glue” – cholesterol. So focus on a combination of protein + produce for meals and snacks. Refined grains and sugar are a treat, not a staple!
Myth: Brushing your teeth can help prevent heart disease
Well, there does seem to be a link between gum disease and coronary artery disease, and that makes sense. Both are inflammatory conditions and are likely regulated to some degree by microbial life in our digestive tract. But there’s no evidence that improved mouth hygiene will ameliorate heart disease…though of course you should brush and floss daily for many other reasons!
Truth: Your heart & mind are connected
The 4 major risk factors of heart disease are obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes. But a recent paper showed that people with depression died of heart failure twice as often as those who had heart failure but were mentally stable. This could be because depression makes daily self-care harder, or that people who have depression are less likely to seek medical help as quickly. More curiously, it seems that people with depression have platelets that are actually stickier (more likely to form clots) than those without depression. We are only beginning to understand the connection between mental and physical health, but heart disease is a clear example of their profound linkage!
Myth: You can tell heart disease risk by body shape.
Apples, pears…forget body shape, you can’t tell heart disease risk by looking! The type of fat that’s actually predictive of heart problems is visceral fat – the stuff that’s close to your organs, and may not make someone look like they’re carrying extra weight. The best way to tell your risk for heart disease is to know these numbers: blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose. If they’re off, or if you’re at elevated risk for heart issues due to family history, age, or lifestyle factors (smoking, diabetes), you may want to talk to your doctor about a stress test or another test called a calcium score. The amount of calcium that builds up in artery walls indicates how hard they are, and that’s related to how likely it is for a rupture to happen. The test is a CT scan, so it’s painless and fast, and costs less than a mammogram or colonoscopy.
Truth: Eating a variety of fats is good for your heart
Hopefully you’ve rejected the idea that fat is bad for you – after all, it is an essential nutrient – and embraced some good sources of fats in your diet. Here, variety and amount are key – you could get the same amount of fat from baked goods and fries as a meal of salmon, avocado, and olive oil, but the quality and level of processing is vastly different. When a fad sweeps the nation (ahem, coconut oil), the idea of variety and balance goes out the window! So suffice it to say: eat fats from the foods they’re found in naturally, have many different kinds of fatty foods, and eat them in the recommended portion size.
Want to test more of your heart number knowledge? This quiz will challenge you and teach you at the same time!
Sarah Waybright MS, RD is the owner and founder of WhyFoodWorks and the team dietitian for Vegetable and Butcher. WhyFoodWorks does nutrition education through food in Washington, DC in corporate seminars. Vegetable and Butcher is a subscription-based service that delivers chef designed, dietitian approved, thoughtful prepared meals to health-conscious people in Washington, DC. You can find Sarah on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram to get food and nutrition tips - and of course, healthy recipes.