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How to Keep Your Heart from Breaking

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I grew up in the South, which means I’ve never met a cream sauce, a chocolate cake, a Durkee onion ring–topped casserole, a slice of bacon, or hot biscuit slathered in butter that I didn’t like. I was blessed with a loving mother and grandmother who had the ability to make pretty much anything taste delicious, many times using the unlikely yet tasty addition of bacon grease as their “secret” weapon (don’t knock it ‘til you try it, non-Southerners.)


My mom made sure we got our vitamins. But it wasn’t until college that I realized that corn fried in bacon grease with heavy cream wasn’t really in the “fresh vegetable” category. Nor were green beans slow cooked with country ham and potatoes or butter lettuce drizzled with a mixture of bacon grease, sugar, and vinegar. Clearly I needed to embrace a healthier diet. But I was only seventeen and I didn’t yet understand that there was more to healthy eating than just staying slim. Besides, there would be plenty of time for healthy eating later, when my metabolism was slower and my thighs were chunky. Right now there was pizza to be eaten and French fries to be dipped in Ranch dressing.


Fast forward twenty years to a time of chunkier thighs and almost non-existent metabolism in a land far, far away from the South. A fit and health-conscious place called San Francisco where riding bikes, downward dogging, rock climbing, roller-blading, Iron Womaning, and running marathons are as routine as breathing.


It seems unbelievable, but it took the combination of moving to San Francisco along with the onset of mid-life adulthood to finally help me realize that eating healthy and regular exercise were important for other things beyond trying not to embarrass myself when wearing a bikini. But is it too late? Suddenly, I’m thirty-seven (how did that happen?) and my lifetime of bad habits has caught up with me and put me at risk for heart disease. Oy.


According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the leading killer of women over the age of twenty-five. It kills nearly twice as many women in the United States as all types of cancer, including breast cancer. (Something I just learned.) Yet only 13 percent of us women actually think that heart disease is a threat to our health.


I read these sobering facts on some pamphlets that I got from my doctor after being informed that my LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) was borderline high. She delivered the news to me while I was sipping on a mocha latte. I told her it was non-fat and she tactfully yet firmly reminded me that “non-fat” doesn’t necessarily mean “low-sugar” and certainly not “low-calorie.” Bringing down my LDL number would mean significantly decreasing my intake of things like my good friend mocha latte. Sensing my sadness at the loss, she reminded me that the gains far outweighed the losses: “You don’t want to have a heart attack do you?”


I’m sure there are many of you reading this and shaking your heads in disbelief at the grown woman who thought she could dodge the heart attack bullet with a diet that consists of 50 percent healthy and 50 percent sadistically unhealthy foods, and rationalize it with the fact that she exercises four days a week. Sometimes.


But I also suspect that for every one head-shaker there are three mouths-agapers because you’re living the same lie that I live(d). You eat salads, you run sometimes, and OK, you probably eat more sweets than you need to. (Do lattes and Jolly Ranchers count as sweets?) You walk from your car to your office and your office to you car and you’ve got kids so that burns a lot of calories, right?


That’s what I thought.


But fear not, you’re reading this now. You’ve been exposed, just as I was, and now you need to do something about it. Just in case you’re still not convinced that you need to take action, if you still think that heart attacks only happen to middle-aged, pudgy little men carrying brief cases, hear this: more women who have heart attacks die from them than men. Ouch.


With that information fresh on your mind, let me remind you of the factors that put you at risk for a heart attack. I know you’ve heard them before, but maybe this time you’ll read them with a fresh eye and new personal meaning.


High ration of LDL to HDL cholesterol: LDL cholesterol is the bad stuff and a high level is associated with a high-fat diet and an inactive lifestyle. Once you’re twenty years old, you should have your cholesterol checked about every five years. If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, then have it checked every year.


Smoking: Newsflash: smoking is really, really bad for you. I don’t smoke but I grew up in a tobacco state and my father died from complications related to smoking, so I have a keen understanding of how incredibly hard it is to quit. But you need to stop. Right now. Because smoking increases your chances of having a heart attack by 38 percent.


Diabetes: Diabetes quadruples your risk for having a heart attack. Quadruples. Decrease your risk for developing diabetes by losing weight and increasing your activity level.


High Blood Pressure: High blood pressure doubles your risk for having a heart attack and is caused by the usual nasty suspects: poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and stress.


Abdominal obesity: I’ve never understood why the location of my fat increases my chances for having a heart attack. Apparently, abdominal fat is hormonally active, meaning it can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.


Alcohol consumption: We’ve all heard that moderate amounts of alcohol can reduce our heart attack risk (60 percent for women). But does this rule apply to all alcohol or just wine? Everything I’ve read lumps alcohol and wine in the same category but red wine gets a special shout-out for the flavonoids and antioxidants found in it. Studies have shown that alcohol and wine slightly raise your HDL level, but so does exercise. I’m no doctor, but it seems to me that staying off the sauce as much as you can is smart. Because if you’re like me, after a couple of glasses of wine, you can rationalize anything—another glass (or two or three), ordering a pizza, maybe even a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream. The truth is, there’s more danger to the alcohol than just the liquid itself.


Lack of fruits and vegetables in your diet: Experts recommend that we eat four to six servings of fruits and vegetables every day to help keep our blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight under control. This one’s hard for me, because it means I have to shop two or three times a week instead of just one (unless I want four to six servings of brown spinach and mealy apples).


Lack of exercise: Even moderate exercise reduces your risk of a heart attack by almost 45 percent. So a regular walk helps lower your risk as much as running a Marathon.


Stress: I’m guessing this factor is the one most of us will pay the least attention to. Why? Because women are born multi-taskers. We have a strange need to accomplish everything, we can’t say no and we don’t like to burden other people with our problems. Sound familiar? But if you’re feeling stressed, give yourself a break. Give yourself permission to say no to things. Talk to a friend or talk to a therapist. Just don’t keep going at the same pace or the results could be disastrous, in many ways.

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