As I wore my red t-shirt on February 6, 2015 in support of the Go for Red National Celebration I looked around to see if I noticed anyone else wearing their ‘red’-in support of this important campaign. I chose to wear red to help bring about social awareness about heart disease being the #1 killer in women in the United States. It is no longer a ‘man’s’ health crisis but it is now lurking at our front doors as well. Dr. Goldberg notes that about 35,000 American women under 50 have a heart attack each year (AHA). This disease is affecting our grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and coworkers. Ladies, this disease is very real but the good news is that 80% is preventable if we choose differently.
So, as I wore my red to help bring about social awareness in my community the mere act of deciding to wear red started to have an interesting effect on me. I began examining my own attitudes, beliefs, and practices especially when it came to diet and exercise. It became a day of accounting so to speak and I included them below to remind me that I too need to take heed!
1. My first thought was-how much am I really exercising? I have to admit that I know that I need to be more active (at least 30 minutes daily on most days) but as many others often say, ‘life keeps getting in the way’, or ‘I am too busy right now’. Truth is, it’s never going to be the perfect time to go for a brisk walk. Our lives are so complex and filled with responsibilities that it does seem impossible at times. Yet, this campaign challenges and gives me a renewed sense of urgency to start moving more, even if I restart at 15 minutes a day.
2. What am I eating when I am busy and stressed? Tired? Am I eating a healthy nutritious snack or meal or something full of saturated fats, hydrogenated fats, and more sugar because it is fast and convenient? Or maybe because it simply tastes delicious like chocolate brownies? Truth be told when I am feeling low on energy I do tend to gravitate towards convenience and quick energy foods. They taste great and to a certain extent are very comforting. I also see the same trend in busy women trying to juggle careers, raising children, driving kids to soccer practice, taking care of parents, housekeeping, the list goes on! It should come as no surprise then that when it comes to eating and snacking we grab what’s the most convenient and what meets a perceived or real need. But is it possible that we can learn to choose differently in those rushed, tired, stressed moments?
3. How is my stress level on a daily basis? On a daily basis I think my stress is about average but when extra pressures come in do I find ways to help bring my stress levels down? Or do I internalize it or try to reduce it? Up to this point I think I have internalized it and yet at other times I have let stress get the best out of me. Can I grow in this area? I really need to learn to minimize the mental and physical stress.
4. How is my blood pressure? Up to this point my blood pressure readings have been within normal range but it appears blood pressure starts to increase as we get older and into menopause. If that is the case, what preventative steps am I taking today to help reduce the possibility of blood pressure issues in the future? Am I reducing my stress? Am I cutting back on sodium? More specifically, am I cutting back on fast food or restaurant food that is laden with sodium? Or I may choosing foods low sodium foods such as from the DASH diet which has been validated to help lower blood pressure and helpful for weight loss? This diet as you might already know consists of consuming lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and low fat dairy. Once again, am I bringing more of these foods home on a regular basis?
5. How is my weight or BMI (Body Mass Index)? For those of you that know me you would say that I do not need to lose weight. And I would whole heartedly agree! However, I have been blessed with the genes of accumulating weight around the waist. Unfortunately, studies are showing that larger waist sizes are suggestive of a myriad of health problems down the road. So, I am challenged. Not to lose weight but to keep my abdominal area within an acceptable range. For women, for example, we are at higher risk of developing heart disease, diabetes , high cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes if most of our weight is around the waist and not the hips or our waist is 35 inches or greater. Researchers believe this is the case since abdominal fat is right over our vital organs and right below our hearts. Definitely something to keep an eye on and a major incentive to keep moving!
6. How am I managing my hormonal changes? There has been much controversy around estrogen and hormonal replacement therapy especially for menopausal women but I bring it up because estrogen and progesterone are our life lines! Also, because research is showing that as our estrogen levels decrease we start losing heart protective properties. It also appears that we don’t fully understand the entire dynamic at this time but if it is true then what can I do to help during those years? What about women already in menopause? I would highly recommend having a good discussion with your doctor about your own risk profile and then making the necessary adjustments. But for everyone else including myself is it possible to learn to make choices today that will last a lifetime?
7. How are my cholesterol levels, primarily LDL levels? Once again, I have to be mindful of what I consume since LDL (or bad cholesterol) is influenced by foods high in saturated fats and sugars. Yes, until now the biggest culprit has been animal fats but more research is pointing the finger at sugar being a contributor to an increase in blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol, LDL and abdominal fat. So how much fat should I be consuming? The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat. That means, for example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day it comes to approximately 13 grams of saturated fats a day which is not a whole lot considering most fast food meals exceed that recommendation. What about sugar intake? The AHA recommends no more than 6 teaspoons per day for women and no more than 9 teaspoons per day for men, with 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon. So that’s about 24 grams of sugar for us ladies. Let’s let that one sink in.
8. And lastly, how am I managing my emotional well being? I pose this more as a philosophical question because I believe that as women our emotional well being plays a big role in our heart health especially when it comes to depression, anxiety, stress, anger, etc. “The head-heart connection should be on everyone’s radar,” said Barry Jacobs, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and director of Behavioral Sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pa. “It’s not just being unhappy. It’s having biochemical changes that predispose people to have other health problems, including heart problems.”
Perhaps in an interesting twist of events this day became a reminder to me that the possibility of developing heart disease is very real. I wore my red to help bring about awareness but instead it was a day of looking into the mirror and reflecting on areas in my life that I know need improvement. And just as the glass heart is strong it also has a vulnerable side. In a similar way I picture our hearts in the same way, strong yet vulnerable. If this is the case, what can you do today to choose to keep your heart beating healthy and strong?
I have listed a few resources that might be of interest to you. Please note that some of these resources are from medical professionals in a traditional medical setting while others are more holistic in nature. Whichever path you choose I am not endorsing any author or their views but simply providing them as resources to help you in your understanding of heart health and prevention. If you have any specific questions regarding your own health or the health of a heart patient please ask your health care team especially if you are considering starting a new exercise regimen or modifying your diet.
8 Lifestyle Choices to Support Heart Health: Very informative as it covers important nutrients essential for heart health.
The Skinny on Fats: An indepth report on the different types of fats and how they impact our heart health.
Each day is a gift,
American Heart Association. Added Sugars Add to Your Risk of Dying from Heart Disease. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Added-Sugars-Add-to-Your-Risk-of-Dying-from-Heart-Disease_UCM_460319_Article.jsp
American Heart Association. Menopause and Heart Disease. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/Menopause-and-Heart-Disease_UCM_448432_Article.jsp
American Heart Association. Depression Linked to Higher Heart Disease Death Risk in Younger Women. http://newsroom.heart.org/news/depression-linked-to-higher-heart-disease-death-risk-in-younger-women
American Heart Association. Mental Health and Heart Health. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/StressManagement/HowDoesStressAffectYou/Mental-Health-and-Heart-Health_UCM_438853_Article.jsp
American Heart Association. Saturated Fats. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Saturated-Fats_UCM_301110_Article.jsp
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Waist Size Matters. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-definition/abdominal-obesity/
WebMD. Many Emotions Can Damage Heart. http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/many-emotions-can-damage-heart?page=4