February is Heart Health Month and a good time to re-examine eating and lifestyle patterns that may affect the overall health of your heart and the health of those you care for.
High blood cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. The National Cholesterol Education Program of the National Institutes of Health recently issued new guidelines on the prevention and management of high cholesterol in adults. The new guidelines target low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, the major carrier of cholesterol in the blood. Research has shown that, if too much LDL cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can slowly build up in the walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain. Together with other substances, it can form plaque, a thick, hard deposit that can clog those arteries.
As the first step in risk assessment, the NCEP is recommending that all adults over age 20 have a complete fasting lipoprotein profile done at least once every five years. Results of the profile, along with age, smoking status and blood pressure, are then used to determine what’s called the "10-year risk" of heart disease. A copy of the risk assessment tool is available online at "http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/cholesterol/".
Basically, people with a LDL-cholesterol value higher than 160 mg/dl are considered at risk of heart disease. The higher your LDL value along with the number of other risk factors (HDL-cholesterol below 40 mg/dl, systolic blood pressure greater than 140 mmHg, family history of early heart disease, cigarette smoking and increasing age), the higher your risk profile. Triglycerides also can raise heart disease risk, particularly if levels are above 150-200 mg/dl.
The good news is that there are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to help lower your LDL and raise beneficial HDL cholesterol levels. Here are some current dietary recommendations from the American Heart Association.
- Watch your caloric intake by eating a wide variety of foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
- Eat a variety of grain products, including whole grains. Choose six or more servings per day.
- Choose nonfat or 1 percent milk and dairy products rather than whole-milk products.
- Choose fish, poultry without skin and leaner cuts of meat instead of fatty ones.
- Choose fats with 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving, such as liquid or tub margarines, canola oil and olive oil.
- Enjoy 30 to 60 minutes of vigorous activities on most days of the week.
- Limit your intake of foods high in calories or low in nutrition, including foods like soft drinks and candy that have a lot of sugar.
- Maintain a healthy weight.