By Phuong Tran
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
February is American Heart Month, and it is a wonderful time to think about your heart since we also ring in the Lunar New Year to celebrate the Year of the Dragon, which represents good luck, strength, and health. How about starting off the new year right by paying more attention to your heart? New research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association reveals that despite receiving bystander CPR at the same rate as Caucasian adults, Asian adults in the U.S. are less likely to survive cardiac arrest.
Heart disease occurs when the heart or blood vessels are affected by a disease or due to lifestyle choices, including smoking, bad diet, inactivity, and obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported approximately 700,000 people in the United States died from heart disease in 2021—that’s 1 in every 5 deaths. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States. But according to the World Health Organization, 4 out of 5 of these deaths are preventable.
Ask yourself this: “Are you giving your heart the attention it deserves?” Some of us give more thought into going to the latest restaurant opening or the newest dessert/boba shops to try over what we do to our hearts. Maintaining a healthy heart is important at any age, so let’s start by putting your most vital organ as your top priority this year.
Here are eight tips to keep your heart healthy for a lifetime since the number 8 is one of the luckiest numbers according to the feng shui numerology—it represents wealth, good fortune, prosperity, and knowledge.
1. Eat better
What you eat matters when it comes to your heart. A heart healthy diet consists of eating a variety of nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables, unrefined whole grains, lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds and oils, while cutting back on nutrient-poor foods high in fat, cholesterol, and salt.
Fruits and vegetables, which have a lower energy density, can help us maintain a healthy weight since they fill us up with fewer calories. Gai Lan, Chinese broccoli, is considered one of the world’s most nutritious vegetables. It is high in calcium and rich in iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Your body needs vitamin C to form collagen, keep your immune system functioning, heal injuries, absorb iron, and support your bones, cartilage, and teeth. Vitamin A is critical to cell growth, while beta-carotene can help prevent the loss of vision.
Not only can you reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by eating more whole grain and high-fiber-carbohydrate foods, but you can also improve your digestive health, lower blood cholesterol levels, and improve your blood sugar levels. Consider switching your white rice to brown rice. To start, you can cook with half white and half brown rice until you get accustomed to it before changing to all brown rice. Some change is better than none.
Meals containing eggs, fish, lean meats, legumes, poultry, and seafood are rich in protein, which is needed for the body to build and repair tissues and organs, including your heart! Your body would benefit from healthy fats found in certain fish. Aim to eat fish high in Omega-3 fatty acids like mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, and anchovies twice a week. Consider using a pan, grill, or steamer to cook your fish. Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a variety of health benefits and play a key role in the health of the lungs, heart, brain, and blood vessels.
Nuts, seeds, and some oils are great foods to incorporate into your diet as a way to improve your heart health. Vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber that are beneficial for heart health are all found in nuts and seeds. Frequent consumption of nuts has previously been associated with lower risk of high blood pressure, decrease the risk of blood clots, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes, and lower unhealthy cholesterol levels, “bad” cholesterol or LDL, since they contain unsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber.
“Melon” seeds, usually referring to baked seeds of the sunflower, pumpkin, or watermelon, are enjoyed during Lunar New Year. They are good sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which guard against heart attack and stroke and lower levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. You can also enjoy cashews since they are especially rich in these healthy fats.
Replacing “bad” fats (saturated and trans) with “good” fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) is beneficial to your heart. One way to accomplish this is to cook and prepare food with nontropical vegetable oils, which are more nutritious, including canola, olive, and avocado oil. These types of oils are healthier than solid fats, which include butter and stick margarine and tropical oils which include coconut oil.
2. Exercise more
Being physically active is a major step toward good heart health. It’s one of your most effective tools for strengthening the heart muscle. With regular physical exercise, you may reap many positive results. It can help improve lung function, lower blood pressure, lower high cholesterol, and lower high blood sugar. These outcomes can all decrease your risk of heart attack or stroke. Walking 30 minutes a day for most days of the week will strengthen your heart. If you can’t find time to fit this in your day, start small: two 15-minute brisk walks a day will bring you to the optimal total. Remember that gardening, cleaning the house, and walking the dog still count towards activity. Find ways to stay active that are fun and engaging, including tai chi and yoga, and it will be easier to make them your daily habits. In addition to benefits to your heart, physical activity also helps improve sleep quality and reduce risk for Type 2 diabetes.
3. Stay at a healthy weight
Carrying extra weight could raise your risk of heart attack by more than a quarter, even if you are otherwise healthy. Managing your weight contributes to good health now and as you age. The more body fat that you have and the more you weigh, the more likely you are to develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes—all factors that increase your chance of heart disease. Healthy weight involves a healthy lifestyle, it is not just about following a diet or program. Studies have shown losing even a little weight can improve metabolic function and hypertension, as well as enhance heart pumping and relaxation. Cholesterol and triglyceride levels usually improve, too.
4. Get regular health screenings
Do you have a family history of heart disease or have been told you are at risk of developing it? If so, it is important to know which screening tests can help you identify the risk factors you have. According to the American Health Association, all regular heart health screening tests for those with high cholesterol or high blood pressure should begin as early as age 20, except blood glucose measurements, which should begin at age 45. If you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, your heart may be accumulating damage right now. If you don’t know whether you have these conditions, damage can occur without you having any idea. Work with your doctor to get a handle on your heart health and to lower potential risk factors.
5. Get good sleep
There’s more to staying heart-healthy than eating right and exercising—sleep also plays an important role in your overall health and wellbeing. Sleep provides time for the body to restore and recharge, playing a key role in nearly all aspects of physical health. People who experience lack of sleep or interrupted sleep are additionally more likely to experience problems with high blood pressure, which increase their risk of developing heart disease, heart attacks, diabetes, and stroke. Getting enough sleep can also help you manage your body weight.
6. Limit alcohol intake
Regular or high alcohol use can hurt your heart and lead to diseases of the heart muscle. This is called cardiomyopathy. Drinking alcohol regularly can also raise your blood pressure and contribute to weight gain since alcohol has a lot of calories and therefore could lead to obesity, which is a risk factor for heart attack, stroke, and type 2 diabetes in addition to other chronic diseases including liver disease and cancer. On days when alcohol is consumed, it is recommended to limit alcohol to two drinks or less in a day for men, or one drink or less in a day for women. By not drinking too much, you can reduce the risk of these short- and long-term health risks. The takeaway message is if you choose to drink alcohol, stick to moderate levels of drinking, and don’t overdo it.
7. Don’t smoke
Smoking or using tobacco is one of the biggest risk factors in developing heart disease. According to the CDC, smoking increases your risk of stroke and heart disease by up to four times. Chemicals in cigarette smoke cause the blood to thicken and form clots inside veins and arteries. Blockage from a clot can lead to a heart attack and sudden death. It’s never too late to quit using tobacco. The sooner you quit, the more you can reduce your chances of getting cancer, and lower your risk of diabetes and other diseases. With improved blood flow in the vessels, your heart and lungs will benefit with better recovery. According to the American Cancer Society, within minutes of smoking your last cigarette, your body begins to recover: 20 minutes after quitting, your heart rate and blood pressure drop. One to two years after quitting, your risk of heart attack drops dramatically. Five to 10 years after quitting, your risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, and voice box (larynx) is cut in half, and your stroke risk decreases. And 15 years after quitting, your risk of coronary heart disease is close to that of a non-smoker. You’ll notice other benefits as well, including food tasting better, sense of smell returning to normal, and ordinary activities like climbing stairs or light housework leaving you less out of breath.
8. Manage stress
Stress is a normal part of life. We all experience it, and everyone can benefit from reducing it. Stress can take a toll on your heart health. And reducing stress can go a long way to helping you prevent and maybe even reverse conditions that can lead to heart disease. Stress can increase inflammation in your body, which in turn is linked to factors that can harm your heart, such as high blood pressure and lower “good” HDL cholesterol. Managing stress is good for your health and wellbeing. There are different things you can do to reduce stress in your life and, in turn, improve your heart health. Stress relief is within your control: practice yoga, give thanks, hug someone or your pet, meditate or pray, learn how to say no, laugh, listen to music, explore nature, and stay in touch with family and friends. You’ve got this!
The key is to make small changes for them to stick and be part of your lifestyle and daily routine. Start the Lunar New Year with two of the above tips for February and add two more each month. By June, you will be on your way to having an enjoyable summer and a prosperous life.
Phuong Tran, MS, RDN, CD is an Outpatient Dietitian for the Seattle VA Medical Center and a Consultant Dietitian for senior living communities.