Heart health requires more than luck


St. Patrick’s Day folklore tells us that things like four-leaf clovers bring incredibly good luck. Good luck can be defined as “success apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions” (Merriam-Webster). However, after looking at statistics related to health in our nation, state, and even here in Lake County, I’m skeptical that relying on luck alone is enough when it comes to heart health.

Our hearts are the muscle we attribute our every emotion to, the things we clasp at when we salute our nation, the organ that declares us alive with every lub-dub. We spend every February reminded of what hearts are meant for by celebrating all the people, places, and things in this world to love. Our hearts have so much love to give, but it appears that we are forgetting to love our hearts back by making good lifestyle choices. The most recent numbers from the American Heart Association state that nearly half (48 percent) of Americans have cardiovascular disease. Lake County has twice the death rate by heart disease compared to the rest of Oregon. Despite our deep Irish roots in Lake County, I think we can all agree that numbers like these tell us that our lucky charms aren’t doing the trick. Bruce Springsteen says it best: “When it comes to luck, you make your own.”

There are many factors that improve heart health, including stress management, consistent sleep patterns, exercise, and of course, nutrition. Follow these dietary choices to make your own luck when it comes to heart health:

Control your portion size

We all know what it feels like to feel too full. It doesn’t feel good. But we often don’t stop to think what’s happening in our digestive tract while we groan about our bloated bellies. Deep within, our stomach is off to work, trying to figure out what on earth to do with this overflow. Digestive enzymes jump into action, but there is too much food for them to combat, and most of it is shifted to storage instead of digested and used. This storage is what we see as accumulation of fatty tissue.

When this fat is stored centrally, it is known as visceral fat. Even people who are thin but follow unhealthy dietary habits can have high amounts of this hidden visceral fat. Visceral fat sits around your organs, making it more difficult for those organs to do their jobs. It’s like putting three layers of puffy jackets on someone and expecting them to complete an obstacle course (think Ralphie’s little brother from“A Christmas Story”on his way to school). This fat makes it more difficult for our liver, kidneys, pancreas, gallbladder, lungs, and especially our heart to function optimally. Be kind to your heart and rest of your organs. Give them the space they need to do their jobs, and keep that visceral fat at bay by noticing when your body tells you it’s full.

Eat your leafy greens

Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, cabbage, collards, and romaine are well known for their many health benefits. Among those is their high amount of vitamin K, which is a key component in blood clotting. Low vitamin K in the diet has been associated with heart conditions where the left ventricle has trouble pumping blood. The left ventricle is the strongest part of the heart, entrusted with the job of pushing oxygen rich blood to all the tissues in the body. Leafy green vegetables help our hearts maintain their strength.

Don’t fear saturated fat but beware added sugars

In the 1950s, Harvard scientist Ancel Keys reported that saturated fat clogs up arteries. This started the fat-free movement we still see today. Now we know that his studies were actually looking at hydrogenated vegetable oils (aka trans fats). The language used in his findings have misled our diet culture into one that opposes saturated fats, still affecting our food choices today. Food items that remove saturated fat almost always add sugar to enhance the flavor. Sugar spikes insulin, which hinders the body’s ability to burn fat for energy and can lead to fatty tissue buildup in unwanted places. (Yes, we’re talking visceral fat around the heart again!)

Rethink your use of vegetable oils

Vegetable oils are everywhere. The most common types are soy, palm, and canola oils. These fats are unsaturated, which are commonly touted as a healthier alternative to saturated fats. Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple. Because of the industrial refining process these vegetable oils go through, they are left with degraded biproducts such as aldehydes, carbonyls, and cyclic hydrocarbons. When we cook with these unstable oils, they continue to degrade. These new compounds can interfere with the functions of various cells. Most noticeably, they can disrupt our feelings of fullness and adequate energy, misleading us to feel hungry even when we are not. Therefore, by adding higher quality oils to your diet, sugar cravings should decrease. Choose more stable cooking oils such as coconut oil, butter (yes, butter!), or avocado oil. More stable unsaturated fats like olive oil can be used with lower temperatures or added after cooking.

Choose whole grains

Whole grains contain all three parts of the grain: the fiber-rich bran, nutrient-dense germ, and energy-dense endosperm. Whole grains are foods like whole-wheat bread, quinoa, rice, oats, farro, and barley. The fiber and nutrients are missing from refined grains such as white bread, crackers, bagels, and cookies. Some studies have shown that more whole grains are connected to reducing “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol as well as regulating blood pressure.

Increase the time between meals

Our bodies are functioning optimally when they can use fat storage for energy. If we are constantly giving our bodies easy access to energy, they don’t need to dig deeper for the fat storage. We are overly sensitive to feeling hungry. We make ourselves eat even when our bodies don’t need to. Meals should be enjoyed, not forced. There is no need to eat just because the clock says it’s time. Notice how your body feels and do what is right for it. Experiment. Know that our guts need a break once in a while.

It has long been thought that lucky genetics play a large role in our health outcomes. However, the more we learn about chronic diseases, the more we see that they are connected to our lifestyle choices. Our hearts are affected by the way we choose to nourish our bodies. When it comes to luck, we are lucky to be here in a place with access to choices that can bring health and longevity, if only we seek them out to make a little more luck of our own.