Take good nutrition to heart

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Why is it that some of the most delicious things to eat are also the unhealthiest? Seems very unfair. As delicious as fried chicken and cheeseburgers are, though, you have to remember that they are not good for your heart. And during heart month, we need to focus on ways to take care of the ticker, especially when it comes to nutrition.

It is well known that carrying extra weight puts undue strain on the heart. In fact, obesity is a key factor in heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and certain cancers. To lower risk of these conditions, we must have a healthy BMI, or body mass index. BMI is a measure of weight to height; if it is too high (25 or above) there is a greater risk of developing one of these illnesses.

Dr. Philip Iuliano of the Sanger Clinic in Mint Hill believes that the most important factor in weight loss is diet. “We see 75% of weight loss come from a change in diet. Exercise is also important, but the right nutrition is critical,” he says. He recommends putting a daily emphasis on fruits and vegetables. “The closer we can get to a plant-based diet, the better it is for our heart health.” In other words, leafy greens, brightly colored vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, seeds, beans, and lean proteins. Reducing the amount of carbohydrates is also important. “Most of our traditional ‘comfort foods’ are high carb. If we change our lifestyle, though, and reduce the amount of bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes we eat, we’ll notice that our cravings subside,” Dr. Iuliano explains.

Dr. Lokesh Tejwani of Novant Health & Heart Vascular Institute in Matthews also recommends changing your diet to improve the health of your heart. He notes that there are certain factors we cannot control so we need to be diligent about the ones we can. “You can’t change your family history or your ethnic predisposition to heart disease. But you can make the right choices when it comes to what you eat.” He recommends avoiding fad diets that create a see-saw effect; losing pounds quickly from making radical changes but gaining the weight back (plus more) once bad habits are rekindled. “Don’t be too aggressive when it comes to weight loss,” he suggests. “Start with small changes that you can maintain, like replacing sugary drinks with water and avoiding oversized portions.”

According to Dr.Tejwani, 72% of men in America and 64% of women are overweight or obese. But belly fat (or waist size) in particular is an indication of risk for heart disease. That’s because this visceral fat builds up in the internal organs like your stomach and intestines and creates toxins that boost your chances of heart disease and insulin resistance, which can bring on diabetes. Women with a waist size greater than 35 inches and men whose waists are greater than 40 inches need to pay careful attention to diet and make an effort to shrink the dangerous fat around the middle.

Besides adopting a diet full of fruits and vegetables, both doctors recommend avoiding fried foods, excessive salt, refined sugar, and processed foods. Protein should come in the form of lean chicken and turkey as well as fish, especially heart-healthy fish such as salmon, cod, and sardines. These fish, along with nuts and avocados, are high in omega 3 fatty acids which can reduce cholesterol and high blood pressure. “High blood pressure is a silent killer,” acknowledges Dr. Tejwani. “We need to recognize its potential to cause stroke, loss of vision, and heart attacks.”

Doctors Iuliano and Tejwani also suggest checking the labels on the foods you buy. Sugar is an especially sneaky ingredient because it comes in many forms. If you see an ingredient with ‘ose’ on the end, it is most likely an alias for a high calorie sweetener. Alcohol consumption should also be limited when trying to lose weight because it temporarily hinders your body’s fat burning process.

It’s not easy sticking to a diet in a world filled with fast food restaurants and frozen meals. But being heart-healthy does not mean there’s no room for indulgence. The point is to make a lifestyle change with your diet. Strive to eat healthily 80-90% of the time and you will see a noticeable difference, both with your weight and your energy levels. Then, when that fried chicken or cheeseburger calls to you in an irresistible voice, you can enjoy it, knowing that you’ve learned how to get back on track. And hopefully along the way, you’ll have found that blueberries and brussel sprouts are just as tempting.

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