While February is typically associated with Valentine’s Day, did you know that it’s also strategically called ‘Heart Month’ in Canada? It’s a time dedicated to recognizing the risk factors of heart disease – also referred to as cardiovascular disease – and to provide health promotion and education to Canadians.
But why does Canada devote a whole month to learning about heart health? For starters, heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada and presently affects about 2.4 million Canadians. Read on to learn more about this serious issue and how we can take preventative measures to keep our hearts and overall health in top shape.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is an umbrella term which encompasses a variety of diseases, such as coronary artery disease, arrhythmias, congenital heart defects, valve disease, and others which all impact the heart’s function in some way. Contributors to these diseases include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and sleep apnea, to name a few.
While there are certain things in life that one cannot change that can predispose or increase one’s risk of developing heart disease (such as family genetics or age), there are lifestyle factors that one can modify. Quitting smoking, dietary improvements (reducing sugar, salt and ‘bad’ fat intake), increasing exercise (150 minutes of moderate activity per week), reducing stress and routine dental check-ups are ways that are well-supported by evidence to lower one’s risk of developing heart disease.
What is cholesterol, and how can it impact the development of cardiovascular disease?
Cholesterol is a fat found in the blood that is naturally made by the body but becomes increased through our diets. The main types of cholesterol are: high-density-lipoproteins (HDL... the good guy!) and low-density-lipoproteins (LDL... or the bad guy!). The reason LDL is coined as ‘bad’ is because it is the component of cholesterol that builds up and deposits in the arteries and blocks the flow of blood to the heart and brain if its levels are too high. On the contrary, HDL wins the ‘good guy’ title as it helps to remove extra cholesterol from the blood.
Keep track of your cholesterol intake
It’s key to be conscious of what kinds of foods we’re putting into our bodies in order to keep tabs on our cholesterol levels. One great way to do this is by understanding cholesterol and the different types of fats on the side of food labels – but this can be complex. When comparing oils, typically those that are solid at room temperature are the ones to limit. Saturated fats (aka ‘bad fats’) are products like butter, lard, fatty meats and full-fat dairy and include highly-processed foods such as hot dogs, donuts, chips and fries.
The next time you’re at the grocery store, make sure to keep an eye out for monounsaturated fats (like olive oil or avocados) which have been shown to improve cholesterol levels. Additionally, polyunsaturated fats, such as Omega-3’s, can actually lower LDL/‘bad cholesterol’. Omega-6, another polyunsaturated fat, can reduce the LDL/‘bad’ cholesterol but has also been shown to reduce the HDL/‘good’ cholesterol so it is advised that intake is in moderation (omega-6 can be found in almonds, safflower oil, corn oil, among others).
How can you take action?
If you are currently diagnosed with dyslipidemia or have been told that you have high cholesterol levels, booking an appointment with a Registered Dietitian can be extremely beneficial and educational for you. Check out resources like the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canada’s Food Guide for tips, tricks and other educational resources.
If you have a family history of heart disease, a diagnosis of a chronic illness (diabetes, hypertension, etc.), or if you have questions regarding your heart health, you should speak to a medical doctor or nurse practitioner. The Canadian Cardiovascular Society recommends that all Canadians aged 40+ should be screened for high cholesterol whose diagnosis is determined through a blood test called a lipid profile. It’s important to be proactive and get tested, as having high cholesterol levels may go unnoticed as it is a condition that is symptom-less.
Remember, it is never too early to be heart healthy, so take control of your health and strive for wellness today!