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Take Charge of Your Heart Health Today


According to an alarming new study from Northwestern University, for the first time there is an increase in deaths from heart disease in younger adults ages 35 to 44, particularly in women, and scientists project that today’s teens will die younger from this disease, the nation’s No. 1 killer.

The report looked at more than 5,500 children and teens, ages 12 to 19. It found that many have high blood sugar levels, are obese or overweight, eat a poor diet, don't get enough exercise, and almost 25 percent had smoked within the past month. Lastly, none of the youth surveyed met the criteria for ideal heart health. All consume unhealthy diets, high in sodium and sugary drinks and lacking in fruits, vegetables, fiber and lean protein; more than 30 percent of the boys and over 40 percent of girls have high blood sugar; 35 percent are overweight or obese; and only half of the boys and about 40 percent of the girls have an ideal level of physical activity. 

One of the main reasons the report is particularly distressing is because the effects are so advanced at such a young age. We’re all born with ideal heart health, but previous studies show that our arteries start to clog as children. Typically after three or four decades, the damage leads to heart disease, but today’s kids are showing signs of damage previously not seen until middle age. 

If you’re in this age group, the good news is you can reverse the trend. In fact, it’s never too soon or too late to take control of your heart health. Here are a few simple heart protective strategies you can put into action today.

Eat to Control Your Cholesterol: There are two kinds of cholesterol. The first is called dietary cholesterol, which is the cholesterol found in foods. Only foods of animal origin contain cholesterol, because animals’ bodies produce it. The second type is called blood or serum cholesterol, the cholesterol in your blood. Some of your blood cholesterol was produced internally, by your liver, and released into your bloodstream, and if you’re an omnivore some was absorbed into your blood through your digestive tract, from the animal foods you consumed. To control cholesterol there are some things you should be eating less of, and other things you should be eating more of.

Eat Less: It’s most important to eat less of what have been referred to as the ‘bad fat brothers,’ which include man-made trans fat and animal-based saturated fat. Trans fat, made from partially hydrogenated oil, is found in many processed foods, to prolong the shelf life, as well as margarines and fast food. Animal-based saturated fat is the solid fat found in whole milk dairy products and fatty meats. Both tend to raise the “bad” or lousy LDL cholesterol. That’s the type of that carries cholesterol toward your heart and dumps it off, where it mounts up in your arteries.

Eat More: It’s always more pleasant to focus on what to eat instead of what to avoid, and there are plenty of heart healthy options. These include omega-3 fatty acids, which can be obtained from eating fatty fish like wild salmon or sardines, or in supplement form, from fish oil, or algal oil for vegetarians. Other heart healthy fats are found in plant-based foods including nuts, seeds and natural nut butters, avocado, and oils like extra-virgin olive oil. Eating more of these foods is key because they boost the “good” HDL, the type that transports cholesterol away from the heart, back to your liver, where much of it can be removed as waste. 

Healthy Swaps: To eat less of the bad fats and more of the good use these smart swaps:

1. Sauté veggies in extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter.

2. Rather than spreading whole grain bread with butter pour extra-virgin olive oil on a plate, sprinkle with dried herbs and dip.

3. At breakfast spread natural almond butter or pesto onto whole grain toast in place of butter or margarine.

4. Serve guacamole as a dip rather than a sour cream or cheese dip.

5. In sandwiches and wraps use pesto, olive tapenade, or hummus in place of mayo or creamy sauces.

6. Toss salads with extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and dried herbs in place of creamy dressing or toss salad with ripe avocado.

7. Grill salmon steak instead of beef and replace ground meat with minced mushrooms sautéed in garlic and extra-virgin olive oil.

Get Moving: Finally, regular physical activity can help lower your LDL (bad cholesterol, think 'l' for lousy) and raise your HDL (good cholesterol, think 'h' for happy) cholesterol levels and help you drop extra pounds or prevent weight gain. Experts recommend 30 minutes of activity most days of the week. And even walking, which doesn’t require getting to the gym, can be one of the best ways to fit it in. 

Do you worry about heart disease? Did you know that most of your risk is within your control? Please share your thoughts here or tweet them to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine!


Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches



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