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From My Heart to Yours: Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the US Consider recommitting to heart-healthy habits during Heart Month and beyond.

Knowing that heart disease affects so many people in the US, I’m sure many of you can relate to my story. My dad had heart disease since I was 3 years old and died as a result just 10 years later. He was followed by a dear uncle, and then another uncle (my dad’s brothers). My mom had a heart attack at age 80, which was the beginning of her health decline. Then recently I was challenged with a cardiac arrhythmia. I was fortunate to have excellent care at the Cleveland Clinic where an ablation procedure cured my symptoms, but I continue to be careful to follow lifestyle habits to prevent future problems.

I am also hitting a milestone birthday this month, and my health is at the center of my thoughts. Granted, I can’t do anything about genetics or age as risk factors, but there’s a lot I can do! Just because you’re a registered dietitian nutritionist doesn’t mean you’re immune to health problems—or bad habits! The last few years have been challenging between caring for our aging parents and recovering from my own heart problem. But now that things have settled down a bit, I’m committed to making more heart-healthy changes. For me, it’s not just about losing weight; it’s about being healthy and having more energy to do the things I want to do. I was already doing most of the steps below and have now added more to my regular routine. The steps are in no particular order. Don’t worry about making all the changes at once; just pick a step you think you can accomplish and go from there.

Some essentials: If you smoke, stop! Find a good quit smoking program. Know your numbers: monitor your weight, cholesterol, LDL, as well as hypertension and blood glucose if you have diabetes. Find a way to stay active. Follow a plant-based diet and follow your doctor’s directions for prescription medications. Some of the steps below can help you get started.

Step 1: Increase your physical activity! Exercise lowers blood pressure, strengthens your heart, helps maintain lean body mass, burns calories, and makes you feel good! Walking is one of the easiest exercises to incorporate into your day. Experts recommend a minimum of 10,000 steps a day (equivalent to 5 miles), and yes, it is possible to fit this into a busy schedule. If you’re just starting out, walk at least 10 minutes at a time. Gradually increase to a minimum of 60 minutes on most days to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommendations.

Before making any changes to your routine, check with your doctor. Once approved, use a fitness tracker or pedometer to count your current number of steps per day to use as a starting point. I have been using a pedometer or Fitbit for over 10 years to help me stay on target. I love the feature on my Fitbit that reminds me to take a minimum of 250 steps every hour! I no longer sit in front of my computer working for hours without moving.

Step 2: Cut back on high-calorie beverages. Do you drink sugary drinks every day? Just 8 ounces of most sugary drinks contain a whopping 100 calories, and most people don’t stop at 8 ounces. 100 extra calories a day adds up to 3,500 extra calories in just 5 weeks, which could mean an extra pound of weight, or 10 extra pounds in a year!

What about alcohol? Has that daily “healthy” 100 calorie glass of wine turned into 2 or more glasses a day? The calories from alcohol decrease quickly and can also loosen your resolve to control your food intake.

Cut out sugary drinks and alcohol for at least 30 days to break the habit. Replace them with sugar-free beverages such as water, sparkling water, diffused water (lemons, limes, cucumbers, or fruit), hot or iced tea.

Step 3: Cut out the saturated fat. Animal fats found in meats, poultry, full-fat dairy products (milk, cheese, sour cream, yogurt, etc.), salad dressings, and fried foods are full of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease. Reduce portion sizes, trim visible fat from meat, remove skin from poultry, prepare foods using low-fat cooking methods (bake, broil, roast), and read labels to identify foods with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats to better health. Skim or 1% milk, low-fat cheese and sour cream, low-fat yogurt, and other low-fat dairy options are available, and many of them taste good!

Ready-to-use spray cans of healthy oils found in the supermarket can help control the amount of fat you use. Choose a healthy corn, safflower, or olive oil to drizzle over foods so you can bake instead of frying or brushing foods with oil.

Step 4: Eat your vegetables and fruits! Eat a range of colors: green, red, orange, yellow Vegetables and fruits contain essential nutrients and fiber for good health. These foods are rich in vitamins C, A, potassium, antioxidants, phytochemicals; and are naturally low in fat and sodium.

Fill at least half your plate with vegetables and reach for fresh fruit for dessert or snack.

Step 5: Reduce the sugar. I’ve always had a sweet tooth, but I’ve cut back on sweets to improve my health and manage my weight. Most of us consume much more sugar than we realize. It hides in juices, jellies, jams, cookies, candies, cakes, pies, regular sodas, cereals, snack bars, condiments, and many other foods.

Start with obvious sources of sugar and switch to naturally sweet foods like fruit (fresh, canned without syrup, frozen without sugar, or dried; do so carefully, as these are concentrated sources of calories). And don’t think it’s better to switch to raw sugar, honey or agave syrup, it’s still simple sugar.

Read the labels – Look for the number of grams of sugar per serving and choose alternatives that are lower in sugar. One more caveat: Some studies indicate that even artificially sweetened foods and beverages can create sweet cravings.

Step 6: Reduce sodium and increase potassium. Nearly 1 in 3 American adults has high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease. A diet high in sodium and low in potassium is linked to high blood pressure. Sodium is abundant in our food supply. Years ago it was used to preserve food, but today we have a taste for it and think that low-sodium foods are bland. To add some oomph to your meals, replace salt and high-sodium spice mixes with naturally hot ingredients, like hot peppers or jalapeno peppers (also rich in vitamins and antioxidants), and your favorite salt-free spices.

Remember to read labels and avoid foods and drinks that are high in sodium.

Increasing potassium in your diet can also help lower blood pressure. Bananas, oranges, potatoes with the skin on, and low-sodium V-8 juice are some of my favorite high-potassium (low-sodium) sources.

Step 7 – Switch to whole grains. Focus on whole grains for nutrient-dense foods that can lower blood cholesterol and improve regularity. Whole grains are much tastier than refined white breads, cereals, pasta, and rice.

Some of my favorite grains include steel cut oats, kamut, and quinoa. I cook my whole grains in a rice cooker, instant pot, or crock pot so I don’t have to monitor the cooking, which usually takes 45-50 minutes on the stovetop. Many whole grains can be used to make a simple and tasty salad or eaten as a hot breakfast cereal with fruit and nuts.

For a quick and tasty whole grain hot cereal, I like traditional oatmeal cooked on high for 2 minutes in the microwave and ready to eat. Top it with some dried cranberries and pecans to add sweetness and texture. It’s quick and easy, inexpensive, tastes great, filling, and it’s healthy too!

Step 8: Reduce stress by taking time for yourself. With a busy schedule, taking time each day to relax, renew, and revitalize is essential! Walking is my time to take a break, get away from daily stress and enjoy fresh air, music or time to talk with friends and family. Choose something every day that allows you to take time for yourself: yoga, meditation, a hot bath, or anything that helps you recharge. Allow yourself at least 10-15 minutes a day. If you can!

Step 9: Include some stretching and strength training. Strength training is essential for maintaining muscle mass, strength, and balance as we age. Stretching helps us avoid injuries and reduce pain. Strengthening your core will protect you from back pain and injury, improve posture, and help you look slimmer, and who doesn’t want that?

Step 10: Believe you can do it. It takes time to develop new healthy habits. Try one thing that you think you can be successful with and go from there. The biggest key is believing that you can make changes that become lifelong commitments to your health.

Best wishes for a heart-healthy future!

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