In addition to Valentine’s Day, February is Heart Health month. Heart disease remains the #1 cause of death for both men and women in the U.S.  We need to show our heart some love. Yet, conflicting health headlines can leave us confused about the best ways to prevent heart disease.

For example: Do you avoid eating red meat because you believe that it will give you heart disease? Do you wonder why dark chocolate—perhaps a frequent craving—has heart health benefits?  Do you believe that eating “low-fat” is heart smart?  Do you think that you are immune to getting heart disease because you’re only in your 20s or 30s?

First, it’s important to understand the two main drivers of heart disease: inflammation and oxidative damage.

Chronic low level inflammation at the cellular level—known as the “silent killer”—can develop without pain and also lead to obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Oxidative damage occurs when cells have been exposed to oxygen (think apple slices that turn brown because they were exposed to oxygen), leading to the creation of unstable molecules called “free radicals”. Damage from free radicals causes inflammation, which damages your DNA, cell membranes and tissues. In turn, this chronic inflammation can produce an abundance of free radicals, which then creates more inflammation. A vicious cycle ensues.

What causes inflammation and oxidative damage?  The main offenders are (but are not limited to):
1) Chronic, ongoing stress
2) Smoking
3) A poor, high sugar diet
4) A sedentary lifestyle

Relative youth (being in your 20s or 30s) does not provide immunity from heart disease. The Bogalusa Study, a long-term community study of a bi-racial population in a small Louisiana town, found that causes of adult heart disease actually begin in childhood—as early as age 8.  According to the study, documented anatomic changes occur by 5 to 8 years of age.  Ideally, a heart-healthy lifestyle begins in childhood.

Here’s the great news… Heart disease can largely be prevented, even reversed, through diet and lifestyle changes. Making the following shifts can go a long way to protecting your heart.

1.  Manage your blood sugar.  Studies show blood sugar imbalances contribute to heart disease. Stabilize your blood sugar by eating regular meals that include protein, healthy fat, fiber and—depending on your carbohydrate tolerance—a low-to-moderate amount of healthy starch carbohydrates (e.g., sweet potatoes, winter squashes, etc.) at every meal.

2. Choose grass-fed red meat (and AVOID factory-farm and processed red meats). Despite alarmist headlines that warn “eating red meat increases risk of heart disease!”, humanely raised animal protein and healthy fats have their place in a heart-healthy diet.  Not all meat is created equal!  Animals raised in factory farms endure stressful living conditions, are given antibiotics, fed GMO grains, along with waste by-products, and are more likely to be contaminated by bacteria.  On the other hand, animals raised on pasture eat their natural diet (grass) and contain less overall fat and more heart disease-fighting antioxidants, like vitamin E.  Pasture-raised animals (meaning they eat grass from start to finish—no grains), such as beef, lamb, bison and game, are excellent sources of lean protein and healthy fats, including conjugated linoleic acid (CLA, which has been linked to long-term weight management) and omega 3 fats (yes, the same omega 3 in wild-caught salmon), which can help stabilize blood sugar and raise HDL (good cholesterol).

3.  Get enough zinc.  A little zinc (8 to 11 mg is the daily recommended allowance) goes a long way. But, as we age, zinc levels tend to decrease—just as cardiovascular risk increases.  Zinc is a trace mineral involved in many enzymatic reactions and essential functions in the cell. Low zinc levels are associated with a greater susceptibility to oxidative stress. Studies have found that zinc levels are often significantly lower in people with heart-related conditions, such as atherosclerosis (scarring of the arteries due to fatty plaques), coronary artery disease, angina and cardiac ischemia (reduced blood flow to the heart). In a recent study, University of Leicester researchers found that zinc plays an important role in regulating heartbeat and promoting normal cardiac function. Your body absorbs approximate 20 to 40% of zinc in food. Animal foods, such as oysters, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised lamb, and unsweetened dark chocolate, are excellent sources of zinc—and better absorbed than zinc from plant foods.  Zinc is best absorbed when taken with a meal containing protein. Don’t begin supplementing with zinc without first asking your doctor to run a Zinc RBC (Red Blood Cell) blood test to determine if you have a zinc deficiency.

4.  Watch your sugar intake.  Eating a high sugar diet is associated with a significantly higher risk of dying from heart disease—even if you are not overweight, according to a major study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Over a period of 15 years, researchers, who tracked participants’ added sugar consumption as it related to heart disease, found that the chances of dying from heart disease rose in tandem with the percentage of sugar in the diet—regardless of age, sex, physical activity level and body mass index. Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is also associated with higher rates of death from heart disease.

Sugar is not just in foods that taste obviously sweet. Today, sugar is added to most packaged, processed and prepared foods, including fast food, takeout and restaurant fare. Bottom line: Read labels!  A food, like yogurt, marketed as “low fat” is high in sugar. And, when eating out, ask what ingredients are going into your meal.

5. Supplement with magnesium.  If you frequently crave chocolate, you are likely craving magnesium. Known as the “calming” mineral, magnesium is essential for heart health. Responsible for over 700 enzyme-activated biochemical reactions in the body, magnesium plays a vital role in regulating blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels.  Low levels of magnesium are associated with angina, congestive heart failure, ischaemic heart disease (reduced blood supply to the heart), cardiac arrhythmias, high cholesterol, hypertension (high blood pressure) and other conditions, including anxiety and depression.  A high sugar diet, alcohol, chronic stress and long-term use of prescription medications deplete your magnesium stores.  Unfortunately, modern farming methods have depleted our soils, making it virtually impossible to get adequate magnesium from food alone. You can ask your doctor to run a Magnesium RBC (Red Blood Cell) blood test to determine deficiency, but you are likely to “feel” a magnesium deficiency as it often manifests as significant symptoms, including PMS, problems sleeping, anxiety, mood swings, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.   I recommend the following brands of magnesium (click on the links): Magnesium Glycinate and Magnesium Citrate/Malate.

6.  Avoid or minimize alcohol intake.  Despite what you may have heard otherwise, alcohol is not a health food!  Sorry.  Alcohol—yep, including red wine—can raise triglycerides, contribute to fatty liver and create blood sugar imbalances. High triglycerides can contribute to hardening of the artery walls, increasing your risk of heart disease. Alcohol, including wine, will increase levels of insulin, the fat-storing hormone. Chronically high insulin levels leads to insulin resistance, which manifests in many chronic conditions and diseases, from obesity and diabetes, to rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. Insulin resistance also causes inflammation—a primary risk factor for heart disease.

7.  Be proactive in addressing negative emotions.  The mind-body connection is powerful. In a study, published in Biological Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh researchers found a strong association between negative emotions, brain circuitry, inflammation and heart disease. How well someone responds to negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety, fear, anger and depression, is linked to their risk of having a heart attack or stroke.  Increasing positive emotions through laughter, mindfulness, meditation and strong social connections, as well as stress management practices (like regular daily movement), can reduce inflammation; and, consequently, reduce your risk of heart disease.

Recipes for a Well-Fed Heart

Skillet-Cooked Lamb Steaks
Cowboy (Rib-eye) Steaks with Espresso Rub
Braised Lacinato Kale Chiffonade
Ultra-Dark Chocolate Sweet Potato Brownies
No Guilt Flourless Chocolate Cake