The Heart of the Matter
Author: be well™ with Big Y® Registered Dietitian Team
February is American Heart Month. And just like with any other monthly health campaign, the messaging may come into your awareness and quickly fade away with the rest of the “should” statements running through your mind. We invite you to not let it.
When it comes to living your best life as long as you can, it comes down to how heart-healthy you’re living. Not just how heart-healthy your meals are, but how heart-health centric your life is day in and day out.
Living Heart-Health Centric.
When it comes to maintaining a healthy heart as you age, your lifestyle behaviors as a whole tell the story. For example, do you frequently feel stressed, overwhelmed, lonely or lost? Do you tend to feed the hungry engine that is your stomach just so your body can take you from Point A to Point B? Do you participate in any form of activity that gets your heart pumping and a little bit of sweat on your brow? Each one of these situations will impact the amount of stress placed on your heart.
Pivot how you answer the “Why?” for practicing a nourishing lifestyle by making maintaining a healthy, functioning heart your focus and you will impact your underlining motivations to change.
What Living Heart-Health Centric Looks Like.
Living a heart-health centric life helps you answer this question on a daily basis: “How will this help or hurt my heart?” For example, if you tend to wake up an immediately hit the ground running with a caffeine pick-me-up in hand, how do you feel afterward? Do you feel relaxed or stressed?
Shifting into heart-health mode may look like getting to bed a half hour earlier in order to wake up a half hour earlier each day so your body has time to slowly wake up. Giving yourself the gift of additional time in the morning may look like going for a walk, journaling, sitting peacefully sipping on warm water with a squeeze of lemon watching the rising sun or stretching in your sheets before your feet ever touch the ground.
Whatever you have control over to help alleviate your body from suddenly shifting from relaxation to stress, and the different body chemicals that go with it, do it. Keep doing it each day until this becomes your routine.
What Eating Heart-Healthy Looks Like.
The heart muscle (and every cell in your body for that matter!) craves nourishment from foods that provide compounds it needs to survive and thrive. This nourishment looks like any other meal plan worth striving toward.
Here are five tenants of heart-healthy eating:
- Colorful. Load up on all forms, textures, colors and types of fruits and vegetables. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends giving bright red, orange and deep green vegetables your priority.1
- Plant Based. Whether it’s the snacks you reach for or the types of proteins you include in meals, plants are where it’s at. You can save money by opting for plant-based proteins like pulses (dry beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas and soy), as well as nuts and seeds.
- Sea-rich. Weaving two to three, 3-4 ounce-servings of seafood into your meals each week can go a long way for heart health, specifically omega-3 rich seafood such as salmon, tuna, oysters and mussels. Check out our “Omega-3s: Essential for Health” article to learn more about omega-3 fats.
- Whole. When choosing grains such as rice, pasta, bread, cereals and crackers, opt for whole grains most often. Not only do whole grains tend to have greater texture and fuller flavor than their refined counterparts, they provide more nutrition. Read about going whole grain in our “Resolution 2023: Wholly Whole Grains” article.
- Liquid. When it comes to the types of fats that do the most for your heart, think about those that are liquid at room temperature. Visualize what this means: they move fluidly through the vessels of your heart! Such fats are unsaturated fats found in fish, avocados, olives, nuts, nut butter, seeds and cooking oils like olive, walnut, sesame and canola.
A powerful tool for bringing yourself back to the daily questioning of “How will this help or hurt my heart?” is mindfulness.
Practicing mindfulness is the act of bringing yourself back to your present moment. A great example of what it feels like to be mindful is to think about what happens to you when you’re learning a new task or participating in a new activity. Are you thinking about the groceries you need to pick up later or is your mind completely engaged in what you’re doing?
When it comes to staying heart-centric throughout the day, staying mindful of the question “How will this help or hurt my heart?” is the goal. Just like any meditation, becoming mindful isn’t about getting it “right,” it’s about bringing yourself back to present. So, if you’re about to tell off the driver next to you at the traffic light or feeling frustrated with the length of the checkout line—bring yourself back to center by asking “How will my reaction help or hurt my heart?” If you’re paying attention, the sensation running through your body and around your heart in those moments will give you an answer you won’t unlearn.
Self-Talk is Heart-Talk.
How you speak to yourself matters. Whether it’s aloud or just in your mind, the words you tell yourself have their impact. This dialogue around making behavior changes is no different than how you handle unexpected changes and hard moments in your life—Do you show yourself self-compassion or do you reprimand and judge?
Keep this in mind as you move ahead to a more heart-centric way of living. Keeping up with changes to your morning routine takes time. Weaving in the five tenants of heart-healthy eating takes time. Learning how to slow down and take in moments of your daily life by being mindful takes time. Speak and support yourself as you would your own child. Be kind, be flexible and see that the process is the lesson—not checking off all the “right” boxes in succession.
1 U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.