Health & Fitness

Smart eating for a healthy heart

Teresa Perez, 50, lost more than 60 pounds in four years by following a heart-healthy diet and exercise regimen. The changes have helped control her blood pressure and cholesterol. ‘I am feeling better,’ she says.
Teresa Perez, 50, lost more than 60 pounds in four years by following a heart-healthy diet and exercise regimen. The changes have helped control her blood pressure and cholesterol. ‘I am feeling better,’ she says. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Teresa Perez battled weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol for several years without making a lot of progress. The Miami mother of four tried diet pills and yo-yo dieting to no avail.

“It’s very hard to change habits,” said Perez, 50. “It’s a life-changing process that takes time.”

About four years ago, when she was 225 pounds, Perez began seeing Dr. Carlos Zamora, director of sports cardiology at Mount Sinai Medical Center to help her devise a heart-healthy diet and exercise regimen.

While Perez is still on medication, these changes have made a difference. She has lost 60 pounds, works out daily and changed her diet to include more fruits and vegetables, drastically cutting back on red meat.

“This is working,’’ Perez said. “I am feeling better.”

The changes in diet and exercise have helped control her blood pressure and cholesterol, “improving her cardiovascular risk factor,” Zamora said.

In 2014, heart disease was one of the top two leading causes of death in the state, accounting for three out of 10 deaths each day, according to the Florida Department of Health.

In 2014, heart disease was one of the top two leading causes of death in the state, accounting for three out of 10 deaths each day, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Several factors can put people at risk, including family history, age, stress and lifestyle choices like smoking. Obesity, too, plays a big part. Nutritious eating and exercise are the best weapons to fight cardiovascular disease and boost overall well-being, according to the American Heart Association’s diet and lifestyle recommendations.

“Both are important,” said Zamora. “You have to have physical activity.”

The heart association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity — or an equal combination of both — each week.

Food is a multi-tasker. Nutrients are not only good for your heart. They reduce the risk of cancer, keep you at a healthy weight. Good health is found in good food.

Sheah Rarback, dietitian and nutritionist at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System

Even athletes have to find the right balance, Zamora said. “You can’t just exercise a lot and then go home and eat ice cream and pizza. You may be burning a lot of calories but you have to replace them in smart ways, with healthy meals.”

A desirable diet should focus on the main food groups, including fish, particularly fatty fish like salmon or tuna, whole grains, vegetables and fruits, lean sources of protein, low-fat dairy products, nuts, beans and seeds, said Dr. Angel Rodriguez, an internist with Baptist Health Primary Care.

The key is finding food “packed with lots of nutrients,” said Sheah Rarback, registered dietitian and nutritionist at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. “It’s best to have food that’s closest to its natural form rather than highly processed or fortified.

“Food is a multi-tasker,” she said. “Nutrients are not only good for your heart. They reduce the risk of cancer, keep you at a healthy weight. Good health is found in good food.”

On the flip side, it’s important to limit foods and beverages that are high in calories and low in nutrients. You’ll want to eat less red meat in favor of leaner proteins, avoid foods with “bad” saturated and trans fats and read food labels carefully to check for added sugar and sodium.

Portion control is also crucial, said Gina Sweat, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic in Weston. Overeating can lead to obesity, which leads to myriad health issues.

“There’s a direct association” between obesity and heart problems. Sweat said. Obesity can cause higher blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, increasing blood pressure and the risk of stroke aside from other complications.

While no single food is a secret weapon, these are foods that are critical to a heart-healthy diet:

Almonds: Nuts are a nutritional powerhouse. Almonds are a particularly good source of protein; vitamin E; fiber; healthy fat; plant sterols, which can help lower cholesterol; and L-arginine, an amino acid that helps blood flow. Nutritionists recommend raw or dry-roasted nuts. Avoid almonds that are roasted in hydrogenated oil or dosed in salt. A serving of almonds is roughly 23, about 160 calories.

Apples: The fruit is low in calories and high in nutrients, a top heart-healthy pick. UM’s Rarback explains that apples have “pectin, a type of soluble fiber that lowers bad cholesterol in the blood. The different polyphenols (plant chemicals) decrease oxidation of cell membrane fats. This benefit is especially important in our cardiovascular system since oxidation of fat …in the membranes of cells that line our blood vessels is a primary risk factor for clogging of the arteries (atherosclerosis).”

Berries: Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries are all touted as super foods, high in antioxidants, including quercetin, which works as both an anti-carcinogen, an antioxidant and protects against heart disease and cancer. Include a mix of berries to boost your heart health.

Dark chocolate: How sweet. You can eat a little bit of chocolate — dark chocolate, that is — and help your heart. Polyphenols found in cocoa beans may help protect against heart disease. The beans are also rich in magnesium, critical for heart health. Nutritionists recommend chocolate with 60 percent or higher cocoa content. One caveat. “Watch your calories,” Sweat said. “People tend to overindulge. Stick to one square of a chocolate bar.” Sorry, but no such health advantage for milk chocolate or white chocolate.

Flax seeds: The ancient seed, crisp and mildly nutty, is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and other nutrients that boost heart health. Rarback suggests adding the seeds to dishes like oatmeal, meatloaf (made with ground turkey), baked goods, salads or stews.

Green tea: Scientists are studying the nutritional benefits of the aromatic tea, which may reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels. The soothing drink is brimming with powerful antioxidants that can improve the health of the cells lining the blood vessels so they are less vulnerable to clogging. Buy tea bags or brew your own instead of buying bottled tea, which might have added sugar. For an added boost, add a squeeze of lemon.

Lima beans: “It’s the forgotten bean,” Sweat said. Along with lentils, white beans, black beans and other varieties, kidney-shaped lima beans are high in soluble fiber, low in fat and have no cholesterol. They are rich in folate, and magnesium, which helps arteries get the oxygen and nutrients they need.

Oatmeal: A comforting bowl of hot oatmeal starts your day with a heart-healthy boost. Dietary fiber from oats and other whole grains, as part of an overall healthy diet, “may help improve blood cholesterol levels, and lower risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes,” according to the American Heart Association. Use steel-cut or regular oats and mix with berries and nuts for a super nutritional breakfast. Other top whole grain sources include quinoa, brown rice and barley.

Salmon: The coral-hued fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids. This type of unsaturated fatty acid may reduce inflammation that can damage your blood vessels and lead to heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids may also decrease triglyceride levels — levels of fats in the blood linked to heart disease and diabetes — and reduce the risk of an abnormal heartbeat. Sweat recommended wild-caught salmon, if possible. Other fish rich in omega-3 include mackerel, herring, sardines and albacore tuna. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish, particularly fatty fish, at least two times a week. Canned tuna is fine, Zamora said, but get it packed in water, not oil.

Spinach: The super food is low in calories, high in vitamins and minerals and packs a nutritional wallop. Spinach is rich in vitamins A and C, folate, beta-carotene, potassium and magnesium, which all help defend the body against heart disease. Other top green veggies include kale, broccoli, mustard and collard greens, watercress and Swiss chard.

Making heart-healthy changes in your diet:

▪  Cook with olive oil, which has monounsaturated fatty acids, considered more beneficial to your heart than many types of oil. Cut out partially hydrogenated vegetable oils to reduce trans fats, considered the worst type of fat. Since even healthy fats are high in calories, use olive oil in moderation. Avocados are another source of “good” fat.

▪ The American Heart Association advises that if you need to lower your blood cholesterol, reduce saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of your total calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that’s about 13 grams of saturated fat.

▪ Eat foods in a variety of vivid colors, including oranges, cantaloupes, papayas, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and acorn squash, which are rich in vitamins and nutrients.

▪  Eggs are no longer the cholesterol demons in your diet, but consult your doctor for specific recommendations.

▪  Healthiest Weight Florida, a public/private collaboration, has created Small Steps to Living Healthy, an email-based program offering weekly tips. Register for Small Steps to Living Healthy and check out www.healthiestweightflorida.com for other resources.

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