Human heart is a very special muscle about the size of a fist. Its job is to push blood through our whole body at the rate of 10 liters a minute. Every time our heart beats, it squeezes and pushes blood out of the heart. The blood goes into thin tubes called blood vessels. These vessels carry the blood through our body. The heart keeps pumping blood through our body all the time. The heart keeps beating even when we sleep.
Generally, our heart beats around 70 times per minutes or just over 4,000 times per hour (70 x 60 = 4,200). On average, our heart beats 100,000 times each day, about 35 million times a year, 2.5 billion times in a lifetime. Sometimes our heart beats faster and sometimes it beats slower. The heart rests for a moment between heartbeats. The total amount of time the heart rests in one day adds up to more than 5 hours. When we grow up, our heart will pump about 10,000 quarts or 2,500 gallons of blood each day and pumps more than 1 million barrels of blood in a lifetime.
These numbers can change, however, depending on blood pressure, heart conditions, exercise and many other factors. It is easy to see why taking care of our heart is important to our health. When the heart is not working properly, the rest of the body suffers. We can exercise our heart just like any other muscle. Exercise makes our heart stronger. Then it can push more blood around our body with each beat.
An unhealthy diet is one of the main risk factors for developing heart disease. Coronary artery disease, heart failure and high blood pressure are just a few of the different kinds of heart diseases that can affect the heart and its ability to function normally. Unsaturated fats, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol and sodium are all dietary factors that can impact the health of our heart. It is also important to know what our daily intake should be for each factor. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, low or non-fat dairy and whole grains, will help keep our heart healthy.
Understanding Fats or Healthy Heart Diet
Eating low fat food doesn't mean we should give up fat entirely, but we do need to educate ourselves about which fats should ideally be avoided and which ones are more heart healthy. Let's be clear: we need fat in our diet. As the most concentrated source of calories (nine calories per gram of fat compared with four calories per gram for protein and carbohydrates), it helps supply energy. Fat provides linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid for growth, healthy skin and metabolism. It also helps absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and carotenoids. And face it, fat adds flavor and is satisfying, making us feel fuller, keeping hunger at bay.
Although all fats have the same amount of calories, some are more harmful than others: saturated fats and trans fats in particular. Health experts are quick to point out the advantages of unsaturated fats over saturated or trans fats when following heart healthy diets, but what exactly are unsaturated fats and why are they considered healthier than other forms of fat? To fully understand what unsaturated fats are, we are going to have to take a trip back to organic chemistry class.
Fats are molecules made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The type of fat depends upon the arrangement of these atoms within the molecule. If the carbon atoms have a single bond between them and as many hydrogen atoms as possible are bonded to the carbon atoms, then the fat molecule is said to be saturated type of fat.
Sometimes though, the bond between the carbon atoms is a double bond and the molecule can absorb more hydrogen atoms. If this is the case, the fat molecule is of the unsaturated type of fat.
Unsaturated fats are almost always plant-based, although there are some naturally unsaturated fats in certain meats. These unsaturated fats are perhaps better known as vegetable oils, since they remain in a liquid or oily state at room temperature.
The reason why unsaturated fats are considered healthier than saturated or trans fats is the nature of the fat molecules once they reach the bloodstream. Saturated or trans fat molecules have a natural tendency to bond with each other on contact, which eventually leads to the formation of artery-clogging plaque. Unsaturated fats, however, have larger molecules and tend to slide past each other in the bloodstream, which means little to no plaque build-up.
Unsaturated Fats: What is it?
There are two kinds of unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Both types of fats are liquid at room temperature. However, at refrigeration temperatures, polyunsaturated fats remain liquid, but monounsaturated fats begin to solidify.
Where does Unsaturated Fats come from?
Polyunsaturated fats are commonly found in nuts (peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts and pecans) and seeds, fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel and in plant oils such as safflower, soy, corn, and sesame oils.
Monounsaturated fats are commonly found in plant oils such as: olive, canola, flaxseed and peanut oils as well as in avocados.
How does Unsaturated Fats affect our heart?
Both types of fats are beneficial to heart health because they work to lower "bad" cholesterol levels when substituted for saturated fats in the diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat critical for our health but cannot be manufactured by our bodies, which is found in flaxseed, walnuts and fatty fish. These fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and also boost our immune systems.
It is important to remember that, although these fats are good for you, eating too much of them can lead to weight gain.
What changes can I make?
- Try using olive oil on your bread instead of butter or margarine.
- Use healthy oils, like canola or olive, when cooking.
- Add nuts, olives, or avocado to salads instead of cheese, which are high in saturated fat.
- Eat fatty fish 2-3 times per week to get a good source of omega-3 fat.
Saturated and Trans Fats: What is it?
Saturated and trans fats can be harmful to our heart's health. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Trans fats are actually unsaturated, but have been altered so that they have qualities similar to that of saturated fat.
Where does Saturated and Trans Fats come from?
Saturated fats are most commonly found in foods from animal sources such as: whole milk, ice cream, butter, red meat, poultry and cheese. Some plant oils also contain saturated fats: palm, palm kernel, coconut oils and cocoa butter.
You will typically find trans fats in commercially prepared cookies, crackers, cakes, French fries, donuts and other processed baked or fried food items.
How does Saturated and Trans Fats affect our heart?
Both saturated and trans fats raise "bad" cholesterol (LDL). However, trans fats also lower the "good" cholesterol (HDL). A diet high in saturated and trans fat will cause "bad" cholesterol levels to rise, which can lead to the formation of plaque (a buildup of fat) in the arteries of the heart. If the plaque becomes too large, the blood supply to the heart is cut off, which causes a heart attack.
What changes can I make?
- When reading labels, look for words like "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" vegetable oils in the ingredient list. These terms mean that the item has trans fat.
- Eat more non-fat dairy products and lean meats.
- Trim the fat off of meat and take the skin off of poultry to cut down on the amount of fat.
- Eat healthy snacks like nuts or fruit instead of cookies or other commercially prepared foods.
Cholesterol: What is it?
What changes can I make?
- Diets high in saturated and trans fat can cause LDL cholesterol levels to increase. A diet high in unsaturated fats and fruits and vegetables can lower LDL levels and raise HDL levels.
- There are many way to raise HDL levels: exercise, weight loss, a diet high in fiber, substituting unsaturated fats for saturated fats, and quitting smoking.
Sodium: What is it?
We often think of sodium as table salt. However, table salt is actually a combination of sodium and chloride. Our bodies need a small amount of sodium to maintain the fluid balance and for use during muscle contractions.
Where does Sodium come from?
Processed and pre-packaged foods tend to have more sodium than freshly made foods. Even if you don't add salt to your food, there is still sodium hidden in many processed foods, so be sure to read the Nutrition Facts label to see how much you are getting. Condiments such as soy sauce and mustard are high in sodium, so use them sparingly.
How does Sodium affect our heart?
When we consume too much sodium in our diet it can negatively affect our heart health. Excess sodium causes the blood volume to increase, which leads to high blood pressure. Our heart has to work harder to pump the increased blood volume through blood vessels. This causes the pressure in the arteries to increase also. Over time, the heart's pumping ability may weaken from having to work so hard to pump the blood.
What changes can I make?
- When shopping at the store, look for fresh, frozen or canned foods without added salts.
- If you buy canned vegetables, like corn or beans, you can always rinse them under cold water. This helps to reduce the amount of sodium on the food.
- Use herbs and spices to add flavor to food.
- Try to cut the salt out of your cooking.
- Use salt-substitutes, but be careful - they still may contain some sodium.
Daily Intake of Total Fat, Trans Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium
Total Fat: About 20%-35% of our daily calories should come from fat. No more than 10% should come from saturated fat. The remaining amount should come from healthy unsaturated fats.
Trans Fat: There is no safe level for trans fat. They should be avoided as much as possible.
Cholesterol: Cholesterol consumption should be less than 300 milligrams each day.
Sodium: Healthy adults should eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day. This is equal to about 1 teaspoon of salt.
Healthy Eating Food Guide: Your complete Healthy Nutrition and Food Guide