What beats over 100,000 times a day, and pumps over 2,000 gallons of blood every 24 hours? The Heart! February is officially American Heart month, so it is important to bring awareness to this amazing organ and how to keep it heathy. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and while this statistic seems dismaying, there are many lifestyle changes that can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Why is the heart important?
The heart is an extremely important organ that one cannot live without. Although it’s only approximately the size of your fist, it is responsible for pumping blood throughout your whole body. The heart is the center of the cardiovascular system which includes the heart, blood and blood vessels. These vessels include veins, which take blood to the heart, and arteries, which take blood to the rest of the body. Veins carry oxygen-poor blood from the body to the heart, which pumps the blood into your lungs. There the lungs add oxygen to the blood, and the now oxygen-rich blood enters back into your heart. The oxygen-rich blood leaves the heart and pumps into the body by way of the arteries.
The Heart and Fats
You may have heard that fat is bad for the heart. While this statement is right, it is wrong at the same time. Some fats may greatly improve heart health, while others do the opposite. The heart is recognized for its ability to make ATP (energy) out of fatty acids. However, this does not mean you should start eating a high amount of fatty foods. The key importance is being able to recognize what healthy fats are and how to incorporate them into your diet. Before talking about fats, let us first talk about cholesterol and the part it plays in health.
What is Cholesterol?
I’m sure you have heard plenty about cholesterol and heart health, but what exactly is it? Cholesterol is a type of organic compound called Sterols. Sterols are waxy like substances and are usually recognized as a type of lipid. While cholesterol may be the most popular of the sterols, there are several other plant and animal sterols. Cholesterol is made naturally by the liver and plays a key role in building cells as well as some vitamins and hormones. Cholesterol also comes from the foods you eat, and this kind of cholesterol is called dietary cholesterol. Cholesterol itself is categorized into “good” and “bad” cholesterol. The “good” cholesterol is High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, while the “bad” cholesterol is Low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Your body produces sufficient amounts of LDL cholesterol, and high levels of LDL cholesterol can cause a buildup of fatty deposits on the lining of blood vessels. That is why it is important to limit the intake of LDL cholesterol through your diet. HDL, on the other hand, “fights” LDL and high levels can reduce risk of heart disease. Let’s talk fats!
Types of Fats
As we learned, keeping your LDL cholesterol at a low level is important, and this can be done by the regulation of types of fat. Some studies show that certain types of fat may increase LDL levels. You may have heard of the Mediterranean diet, a diet rich in fat. Research shows that people living in the Mediterranean have a low risk of heart disease and the incidence of it is lower than those in the US. Why is this?
Ever heard of “healthy fats”? These are called unsaturated fats and are the secret ingredient of the Mediterranean diet. Unsaturated fats are known to lower “bad” cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. There are two types of unsaturated fats. These are polyunsaturated fats, and monounsaturated fats. Some good sources of unsaturated fats include:
- Nuts such as almonds, peanuts, and pistachios
- Olive oil
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that is recognized for their role in several body functions. Studies show that omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of heart disease by rising HDL cholesterol levels and lowering blood pressure. Fish, such as Mackerel and Salmon, are high sources of omega 3’s. However, they can also be found in other sources such as:
- Canola oil
- Milled or ground Flaxseed
Saturated fats are mostly found in animal sources such as whole milk, butter, and meat. Saturated fats can also be found in coconut oil and palm oil. Excess amounts of saturated fats can increase the level of LDL cholesterol. While saturated fats cannot be completely cut out, they can be limited. Some ways to limit saturated fats include:
- Choosing lean meat products
- Trim any visible fat on meat
- Grill or bake instead of frying
- Use oil instead of butter for cooking
- Limit processed meat such as sausage and hotdogs
Trans fats can be either natural or artificial. Natural trans fats are found in small amounts in animal products. Natural fats are not associated with causing health problems, and small quantities are considered safe. Artificial trans fats, on the other hand, are shown to lead to health problems such as heart disease, obesity, damage to the lining of blood vessels, and increases LDL cholesterol. While the use of trans fats is being limited in foods, they can still be found in some processed foods. Be on the lookout for the use of partially hydrogenated oils or items on the ingredient list; this means they are using trans-fat. If a food contains 0.5 grams or less of trans fats, manufactures are allowed to label their products as “trans-fat free”. That is why it is important to read the ingredient list!
Last but not least, exercise! Getting in 30 minutes of physical activity for 5 days a week can significantly increase HDL cholesterol levels and lower LDL cholesterol. This means that every time you go on a walk or a run, you are helping your HDL cholesterol fight the “bad” guys! Keep your heart healthy!
Written by Samantha Walter-Cano, Edited by Andrea Lazzari
American Heart Association. (n.d.) What is Cholesterol? American Heart Association. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/about-cholesterol
American Heart Association. (n.d.) What is the Mediterranean Diet? American Heart Association. Retrieved January 23, 023, from What is the Mediterranean Diet? | American Heart Association
Andrade, J. (2021, January 15). REDUCING YOUR RISK FOR HEART DISEASE: THE POWER OF FOOD. askifas. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/FS426
Cleveland Clinic. (2022, Nov. 17). Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from Omega-3 Fatty Acids & the Important Role They Play (clevelandclinic.org)
Elliott, R. (2022, June 6). Saturated Fats, Trans Fats and your Heart. UF/IFAS blogs. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from Saturated Fats, Trans Fats and your Heart – UF/IFAS Extension Marion County (ufl.edu)
Krans, B. (2018, July 10). The benefits of cholesterol: How to increase HDL Levels. Healthline. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.healthline.com/health/high-cholesterol/benefits#physical-activity
Leech, J. (2019, July 30). What are trans fats, and are they bad for you? Healthline. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/why-trans-fats-are-bad#tips
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2021, April 8). Learn the facts about fat. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fat/art-20045550
U.S. Department of Health (n.d.). How blood flows through the heart. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/heart/blood-flow