5 Lifestyle Risk Factors Account for 80% of Strokes

We all know there are plenty of risk factors for heart attack and stroke.  Recently, a large international study helped clarify what some of these risk factors truly are, and how they impact your risk.  There were five primary factors that seemed to have the biggest impact.

High Blood Pressure

This is the biggest and most obvious one.  Blood pressure is a serious health concern for many reasons.  Blood pressure is also a primary factor in the likelihood of several types of stroke.  High blood pressure accounts for roughly one-third of all strokes and is the most prevalent and serious risk factor.

Smoking, Abdominal Obesity, Diet, and Exercise

The other four of the top five risk factors of stroke are smoking, abdominal obesity, diet, and exercise.  These all play into your overall health in unique ways, but they do have a unifying factor:  they all play a significant part in your overall risk of stroke.  The important thing to note here is that there’s a degree of personal responsibility tied to all of these factors.  Smoking is a choice-turned-addiction, and quitting is a great step towards better health.  Weight management, diet, and exercise are all within your hands.  Proper care and communication with your health care practitioners can lead you to good results on all these fronts.

These first five factors, blood pressure, smoking, abdominal obesity, diet, and exercise, account for 80% of the risk factors for stroke, according to this study.  Experts were able to make the study show even more specific results than this.

90% of Risk

In addition to the above risks, these complications make up 90% of the risk related to stroke:  blood lipids, diabetes, alcohol, stress, and depression.  These factors alone can create serious complications, but in combination with some or all of the other factors can be deadly.  Some decisions can be made to limit the severity of these factors, such as quitting smoking and reducing alcohol intake.  Stress management and proper nutrition can also make a difference.

Overall, the valuable lesson here is that living healthfully for your entire life is the best option.  It’s never too late to take proper care of yourself, but many of these factors were in the works long before stroke becomes a likely threat.  The earlier you can adopt healthy habits, the better.

To see an article about the study, click here.

Debunking Fad Diets

I’m sure you’ve heard it.  Some ad on TV comes on, telling you about the hip new diet that is sweeping the west coast.  All the stars are doing it!  It’s guaranteed to give you the fastest results with little effort and no side-effects!  That sounds too good to be true, right?  That’s because normally, it is.

Know the Signs

Fad diets can be pretty easy to pinpoint.  Generally, they’re hyped up and heavily marketed.  If they aren’t corporately sponsored, then they’re part of some hyped-up trend.  A good rule of thumb, if you can information on your diet from the tabloids, it’s probably not a good option.  Sometimes, these foods have specific brands of diet foods.  These may be just as highly processed as any normal foods, and often aren’t as healthy as they sound.

Look for Sound Science

“Real” diets aren’t just a “diet.”  They’re a lifestyle choice.  And usually, the diets that are worth turning into a lifestyle have special research and reports backing them up.  If you want to make tweaks, do your research.  Talk to professionals who understand the difference.  Overall, be careful of avoiding things that seem like they’re too easy for the results.

Whole Foods are Best

In many ways, your diet should be more of a series of small choices, rather than one definite plan that you stick to for a set period.  Each time you go to the store to buy food, you should be making wise choices.  A diet of whole foods and careful choices is in many ways superior to any boxed diet or trendy plan.  Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains should be the foundation of your eating habits.

When you start considering changes to your eating habits, do your research.  Be able to spot fraudulent diets and scams.  And always, always remember that wise choices will help you more in the long run than any too-good-to-be-true miracle solution.

Summer Storm Blues

Most people think of summer and they see blue skies, hot temperatures, and the outdoors.  Well, an often-forgotten part of summer in many areas would be summer storms.  Here in Illinois, storms are more than a little common.  We’ve had more days of rain in the last few weeks than of sun!  So what do you do when rainy weather puts your plans for exercise on hold?

Indoor Activities

It isn’t necessarily easy to get a treadmill, but there are plenty of things you can do inside to keep yourself moving.  Even doing light aerobic exercise in an open area can be of benefit to you.  More and more options are opening up for this field.  If you don’t think you could keep yourself focused enough to simply work out on your own, try out some workout DVD’s.  There’s a huge variety, with choices for people at all levels of fitness and difficulty.  Another fun choice could be the look into Wii Fit.  This is a pretty hefty investment, so if you plan on trying this, be sure you’re committed to it.

Day-to-Day Tasks

You don’t always have to be “working out” to get good exercise.  Have you ever deep-cleaned a room before?  Really.  The sort of deep-cleaning that makes you break a sweat.  That sort of activity could actually constitute as exercise of a sort.  I’ve found myself pretty worn out after cleaning on several occasions.  If it gets you moving, elevates your heart rate, and keeps you going for over 30 minutes, it’s a good workout!

On Location

Still not sure you can fit in your normal amount of activity?  There are places you can go to get that in.  Most malls have plenty of room for walking.  I’ve resorted to that on more than one occasion.  There have been plenty of times when I felt the drive to go for a walk, but it was too cold or too hot out.  Malls are convenient because of climate control.  There’s also ready access to restrooms, which isn’t always the case if you go for long walks outdoors.  If you’d like consistent access to equipment, climate-controlled settings, and professional advice, gyms and fitness clubs are a great option.

Working out in bad weather isn’t fun.  It never is.  It drains your motivation and sometimes makes it altogether impossible to get active.  Often, weather conditions make it too dangerous.  At times like this, you need a back-up plan.  Slipping up more than a day or two can lead to a break in good habits, and no one wants that.  So, next time the summer storms set in and it’s best to stay inside, have a plan.

Consistency Matters!

Regularity is a little thing that can make a big difference.  Most people have their routines, and aren’t very appreciative when they’re interrupted.  Being consistent can be a make-or-breaker in many situations.  Your diet and lifestyle are no different.  Keeping up a good, consistent routine to take care of yourself is key.  This includes exercise, sleep, eating habits, and personal time.

Plan Ahead

You may worry that occasions will arise where you can’t always follow your usual routine.  Planning ahead can help you adjust to stick as close to your regular routine.  Sometimes when you’re traveling or with different people than usual, findings means to keep your health habits intact seem daunting.  A little forethought is all it takes to maintain your routine, and good health.

Adjust Accordingly

What if there is absolutely no way you can stick to it as well as you’d like to?  Try your best, and make compromises.  Find little ways to make up for it.  Can’t make it to the gym or fit in your normal exercise?  Tack on some extra walking.  Take the stairs instead of the elevator.  Worried that your evening out may make it hard to eat right?  Find ways to cut extra calories and fat from your meal and go light on the things that you’re more worried about.

You can’t always be perfect, but you can still moderate yourself.  You may not always have the best options 100% of the time, but you can provide BETTER options for yourself than what might be easy.

Get Back on Track

Sometimes we all slip up.  Sometimes we just don’t have all the options we’d like to have.  Did you splurge on that last meal?  Did you skip a few days of working out?  So, you goofed.  We’ve all done it, we’ve all been there.  Just work hard to get back on track.  Messing up doesn’t have to be a permanent situation.  You may have actually learned something from your break.  Maybe you figured out the best way to avoid losing your routine.  Maybe you accidentally found something new to incorporate into your usual regimen (hopefully a healthful, beneficial addition).

No one’s perfect, and your routine can’t always be.  While it’s good to be consistent with things such as diet, exercise, sleep, and relaxation, you can still have wiggle room.  It’s most valuable to keep in mind, though, to realize that consistency matters.  Also, be sure to talk to your healthcare professionals about big lifestyle changes such as exercise programs and major diet changes.  Routines are only good to keep if they’re the right routines.

To Supplement or Not to Supplement

When Do We Need to Supplement?

“Should I be taking supplements or not?”  This question came up as I was talking with a friend.  They asked whether or not they should supplement whey protein in their health shake.  My typical answer to this is, “Only supplement when you don’t get enough of something or have an increased need for it.”

My personal opinion is that most of us get enough protein and this in not a necessary supplement.  On the other hand I know there is research to show that supplementing with whey protein can be beneficial.  Now, this blog post is not about whey protein but this conversation got me thinking.  Maybe it is beneficial to supplement whey protein because it completes an empty loop left by the heavy consumption of casein, the other main milk protein.

Just a little background:  whey protein is the by-product of cheese making.  The whey is removed and the casein is concentrated.  Considering cheese consumption has quadrupled in the last 6o years it got me thinking that maybe the imbalance that eating to much cheese may go beyond the excess it creates.  What about the imbalance that is created because of what is missing?

Why Do We Need to Supplement?

In my understanding, why we need supplementation is usually because we’ve removed something that was originally there to begin with.  Throw into the mix bad food choices, nutrient depleting farming methods, and increased toxicity…you get a fuller picture of why we need supplementation.

One problem I see with using supplementation as the fix for the removal of nutrients during food processing is that I don’t believe we have a full handle on all the things that are being removed.  The depth of what food has to offer is still being explored.  New nutrients like polyphenols, anthocynadins, and ellagic acid are just some of the beneficial chemicals that have been discovered in food in just the last few years.

To think that taking in isolated nutrients through supplements, and fully replace what we’re missing, is short-sighted.  Isolated nutrients are the beginnings of realizing what we are missing when we alter food from its original state.  Isolated nutrients may be just a start, but I think they are necessary to patch of some of the damage caused by the modern food system.

So to go back to my original thoughts about whey protein, I don’t think supplementing it will overcome our excessive consumption of cheese.  Our best bet it to consume far less cheese.

So what about the other supplements?  Should I take something to make up for what I do not get in my diet?

What Should I Be Supplementing?

I believe there are three main areas that Americans fall short on in their diets.  Then, they need supplements to compensate.  These areas are:  a multivitamin mineral, omega 3 fatty acids, and probiotic nutrients.

First and foremost, consider a good multivitamin mineral supplement.  It is best to get a whole food form with plenty of magnesium.

Secondly, I recommend a good omega 3 supplement. This fat is destroyed or removed from most processed foods because it is so volitile, or unstable.  Since it is unstable and breaks down easily during processing and preparation, I recommend you get flax oil from a good company that is kept in the fridge.  Even better yet buy some flax seeds and grind them yourself with a coffee grinder.  Add this to oatmeal, pancakes, over salad, or mix it right into dinner.  Add raw walnuts and extra virgin olive oil to your day and you have a good start to meeting this need.

Thirdly, I recommend a good probiotic supplement.  Since we’ve become a germaphobic society, we generally kill off good bacteria (probiotics) in food processing.  Pasteurization of milk is a good example of a source that would have supplied lots of good bacteria, but we destroy them during processing.  Add antibiotics to this equation, which kill good and bad bacteria, and now you have created an overwhelming need.  I think many people would benefit from daily probiotic supplementation.  Once you have a better balance of good bacteria you can probably go down to a one month supply every 3 months.

Supplementation should have a specific purpose.  If you are not aware of the reason why you take a supplement make sure to ask a qualified person for advice.  Dietary supplements can also help us regain and maintain our health.  Supplementation for medicinal purposes is way beyond the scope of this article.

Portion Increase, a Possible Heart Disease?

Photo by Burger Baroness under Creative Commons License

Livin’ Big

             The saying ‘everything is big in Texas’ doesn’t apply just to the Lone Star state anymore. It also applies to the fast food culture and food in general. For example, did you know that 40 years ago McDonald’s only burger weighed about 1.5 ounces, compared to today’s largest patty of 8 ounces? That’s quite an increase, isn’t it? Read on about what happened to our meal portions and how it may affect our health.

 How Much is Enough

Since the 1970s, overweight and obesity has drastically increased. There is a 19% increase in people that are overweight and a 15% increase in obesity. Food is often offered in larger quantities at many different eateries. For example, according to National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a typical two slices of pizza has 350 more calories than twenty years ago. Twenty years ago we didn’t have a choice of five different sizes of coffee. Nowadays, you may buy a 32 ounce cup of coffee that can have as many calories as someone’s dinner. Serving sizes are so messed up today that it’s hard to tell how much food is enough.

 More Calories, More Fat

With constant increase in portion size we are consuming more food, more calories, and more fat. And, it seems like the increase is no where near the end. The recommended daily amount of meat for adults should be around 5 ounces. Recently, fast food restaurants such as Burger King, Wendy’s and others, introduced several massive burgers with calories up to a 1000, with 12 ounces of meat. That’s enough meat for two days! The Hardee’s breakfast burrito which includes eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, cheese, gravy- I hope I am not missing anything- and hash browns has more than 900 calories and about 60 grams of fat. Keep in mind that the recommended amount of fat per day is 65 grams. Such increase may have negative effects on cholesterol and heart health.

 Cornell Study

When you’re at the movie theater, have you seen the sizes of those buckets of popcorn? According to NHLBI, today’s popcorn at the movies has more than 350 extra calories compared to two decades ago.  

Cornell University conducted an interesting study where two groups were divided, with different sizes of buckets, and different tastes of popcorn. One was with a medium size and the other group with a large size and stale popcorn. The study showed that taste didn’t even matter. The buckets were finished regardless of the taste, even with larger sizes. And, that’s what amazes me the most. Why force yourself on empty calories when it doesn’t even taste good? Maybe it’s because we want to get our money’s worth. But, seriously, they’re so big we can fill up those buckets to wash our cars.

 Who’s to Blame

The food companies are just one part of the problem. We are another part of it. Yes, I said it. We tend to buy more food when it’s cheaper thinking that we’re getting great deals. Well, a great deal is when we buy healthy foods, not buckets of popcorn or super sized meals. We are so used to ‘have to buy more if cheap’ mentality, that we even start to complain if the bucket is not overflowing with popcorn. I know it’s tempting and I tend to do it myself, but we must realize that we’re not actually offered a better deal. What we’re offered are more calories and fat.

Next time, when you are ordering food, try and get a smaller portion. See how it feels, because you’re probably getting just enough to satisfy those food cravings.

Red Wine and The Cholesterol Study

Photo by yashima under Creative Commons

I’ll Have a Glass of Red Wine, Please

If you’re a wine enthusiast you’re in for a treat. If you’re just like me, who knew nothing about wine and its benefits for cholesterol, then you’re in for a surprise. It turns out that several medical studies done at the University of California, London School of Medicine and other institutions, report a decline in cholesterol after consuming red wine. Now, let’s immerse into the world of wine, shall we?

Red Wine and Saponins

According to Andrew Waterhouse, a PhD in Enology (study of wine chemistry) at UC Davis, scientists have found certain chemicals that may help lower cholesterol. These chemicals are called saponins which are found in grapes’ skin. Researchers believe that saponins bind to cholesterol and prevent absorption. Saponins are also found in other foods such as olive oil, chickpeas and soy beans. The discovery of saponins in wine, specifically in red wine, might give scientists further clues and evidence that red wine has certain health benefits.

For example, let’s take a look at the French Paradox. Cheese, butter, croissants and other very delicious foods are part of the French diet. Even though these foods are delicious, they are very high in fat. Yet, the French heart disease rates are lower than in the U.S. France is also one of the largest consumers of wine. Many researchers believe that there is a link between red wine and the French Paradox. The discovery of saponins will definetly support this link. Or, maybe it’s because the French eat whole foods, not processed, but that’s just a maybe.

Everything in Moderation

Another research study shows that having a glass of red wine daily for a 4 week period increased HDL cholesterol (the good kind) up to 16% while lowering the LDL (the bad kind). The Institute of Preventative Medicine in Denmark showed that moderate consumption of red wine for a period of one month is associated with desirable changes in HDL, even compared to red grape extract. But, moderation is the key. The recommended amount is only around 5 oz. of red wine. One glass of red wine already contains about a half of daily dose of saponins, but one glass was enough to show benefits in lowering cholesterol.

Which Kind Is Better?

For all of you wine enthusiasts, studies showed highest amounts of saponins and antioxidants in red Zinfandel, followed by Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. If you’re a fan of white wine, the amount of saponins and antioxidants are much less compared to red wine. Sorry.

So, keep in mind that red wine has more beneficial content than white wine, in case you’re deciding on which wine to drink for today’s dinner.

Whole Foods and Heart Health

It’s interesting to see how researches keep finding more and more healthful chemicals in our foods. Whether its avocados with their beneficial monounsaturated fats or red wine with newly discovered saponins, there are plenty of whole foods available that may help lower cholesterol and benefit our health.

Just remember, when it comes to alcoholic beverages such as wine, use common sense and moderation. If not sure, ask your doctor if you are able to consume one glass of red wine once in a while. Enjoy your dinner!

Avocado, A Heart Healthy Fruit?

Photo by Michael Mark under Creative Commons License

 Avocado, a Heart Healthy Fruit?  

              Yes, avocado is considered a fruit. But, I am not going to write about whether it’s a fruit or a vegetable. It would be one boring blog. Instead, I’ll tell you about what I found out about avocados and their benefits for heart health. It’s an amazing fruit, really.  

  First encounter  

              Growing up in Europe, avocados were not as popular as on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but my family would always buy them if available at a local super market. Avocados were in the fruit section, so I was always confused that it didn’t taste like fruits at all. Our family used avocados mostly in salads and that’s how I became a fan of their delicious taste. There are actually hundreds of different ways your can use avocado and if you don’t believe me, visit California or Texas. These two states are the biggest consumers of avocado in the US.    

  Fat, Cholesterol, and Confusion  

              But, not everyone was a fan of avocado. I remember a family friend who said that avocados are high in fat and that fat raises cholesterol. Certain unhealthy types of fat definitely don’t help cholesterol but, not all fat is bad. We need to differentiate fats here, for example, trans fat that you may find in greasy fries from your local joint is bad, but monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, in reasonable amounts, can actually help in lowering cholesterol.  

  Avocado for Heart Health  

              A study that was done in Australia shows that including avocados in one’s diet may help reduce cholesterol by 8 percent. This is better than just a low fat diet by itself. That same study showed that HDL cholesterol (the good stuff) increased by 15 percent in people who included avocados in their daily meals. Such benefits are caused by avocado’s healthy monounsaturated fat and Beta- Sitosterol. Beta- Sitosterol blocks LDL (bad cholesterol) from absorbing, resulting in lower cholesterol levels.  

              Amazingly, Australian study not only showed that avocados may help reduce cholesterol levels, but help with weight management as well. Eating half to a one and a half avocado per day for a month helped people to lose weight.  

  We’re Missing the Point  

              I was excited to find out that avocado fat is healthy and helps reduce cholesterol levels along with other benefits. Looks like our family friend didn’t know much about different types of fats and was misinformed. Knowing this kind of information may greatly benefit us in selecting the right foods for a healthier lifestyle. Many of us miss out on lots of great food that is available for us everyday, with plenty of benefits. So, next time you’re doing grocery shopping, put that avocado in your cart.

Butter vs. Margarine: The Big “Fat” Misunderstanding

Until recently not many health organizations were helping us to better understand the stick butter vs. stick margarine debate.  Now we are starting to see bans on the trans fats that are  commonly found in stick margarine.  Many health organization are also moving away from the partially hydrogenated oils found in stick margarine.  So why has there been confusion for so long about this debate?

A combination of good marketing, label confusion, and a little help from health organizations muddied the waters on this issue.

Margarine in a healthy disguise

Although stick margarine has plenty of flaws, it was able to achieve a clean bill of health.  The margarine companies got a good start by hiding behind the innocence of the name vegetable oil, which gives the impression of the wholesome goodness of broccoli in a bottle.

Until recently the lack of labeling laws for trans fat also made the magarine label look good.  Labels that were low in saturated fat and no cholesterol made margarine seem like it could do no wrong.  What we couldn’t see was that it contained the only fat to date that has been definitively correlated with heart disease, trans fats.

I think most of the confusion came because margarine was promoted as a good source of fat by most health organizations.  Because of this margarine companies didn’t have to spend their resources convincing us it was good for us.  Instead they were able to spend all their time and resources convincing us that it was pure, healthy, natural, and that it tasted as good as butter.  Since not one of these properties is true, it took a lot of effort to convince us.  And since margarine is made from extremely cheap raw materials,  there was a lot of capitol to make sure we got the message.  They used Eleanor Roosevelt and even mother nature to convince us that margarine was not only acceptable to bring into our homes, but that it was desirable.

Started out natural, ended up synthetic

So lets clear up some of the misinformation here.  Stick margarine is not natural, pure, healthy, or better tasting than butter.  High trans fat margarine is toxic and it contains the only regularly eaten fat known to increase heart disease.

Lets take a look into the manufacturing process of traditional stick margarine which should have given us a clue from the beginning that it might not be good for us.  Margarine manufacturers started out with foods like corn and soy which don’t normally give us a significant amount of fat.  Then they used high amounts of heat and a neurotoxic chemical to extract the oil from these sources.  Most of the nutrients in the extracted oil are removed or destroyed during processing.  To top it all off they subject the oil to high heat and a metal catalyst to create a partially hydrogenated oil.

The synthetic trans fats created in this process do not offer any value for the body and worse than that they can actually interfere with a number of normal body processes.  They raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol.  They also increase inflammation and make blood platelets more sticky.  This makes it more likely for blood to clot and block vital arteries.

A better understanding of butter

Butter on the other hand is all natural.  You can even create it in your own house without any equipment, heat or chemicals.  Butter is a good source of beta carotene and other healthy nutrients.

Butter is believed to be bad for heart disease because of its high saturated fat content.  A recent review of 21 studies that included almost 350,000 people showed no increase in heart disease and stroke for those that ate the most saturated fat compared with those that ate the least amount.  This is not true for trans fat which has now been shown to have many direct correlations to heart disease.

So while butter wins this debate, I still think that raw nuts and seeds and extra virgin olive oil should top the list as preferred sources of fat in our diets.  They are full of healthy fats in their most unprocessed forms.

Eating like an Olympian. The truth!

Eating like an Olympian. The truth!

             So what is the deal with eating like an Olympian? With the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver, I got really interested in what these athletes ate in order to compete. Actually, I should restate that. I was more interested in how ‘Eat like an Olympian’ message from McDonald’s would put the future athletes on the top of the Olympic podium.  

 Fast Food? Really?.. Really?

             Several McDonald’s commercials during the Winter Games got me very curios. Is fast food really the food of champions? And, is it okay to eat fried chicken and fries if you’re an athlete? In the back of my mind I knew the answers to those questions, but I wanted to do a little research of my own to find out what some of the athletes do eat when it comes to crunch time. So, I thought I’d let you know as well, because the whole fast food and Olympian thing just doesn’t add up. At least to me it doesn’t.

 Eating like an Olympian… Not Really

             One of the commercials for McDonald’s portrayed a young girls’ hockey team whose coach was giving an inspiring speech. I was totally fine with that, what got me frustrated was what the coach said at the end. He said something along the lines of, “Tonight, we’re going to eat like Olympians.” The next scene shows fries, sodas, and burgers. Are you kidding me? Does this mean that athletes of high caliber munch on cheeseburgers with fries? To me, the message here is dead wrong and it puts the wrong perception into the minds of young athletes.

             Now, do you think Apolo Ohno would be able to skate the way he did throughout the Olympics if he was on McDonald’s Olympic diet? Exactly, he probably wouldn’t even fit into those tights.

 Now Eating like an Olympian

              Speaking of Apolo Ohno, I did some research and found out some cool information on what he eats. Remember Apolo is one of the most decorated Winter Olympians.

             Apolo’s trainer John Schaeffer revealed some of Apolo’s diet. The skater’s meals consist of mostly fish, fruits and vegetables (nothing surprising here). Healthy fats only, so, fast food clearly doesn’t fit in here. Before the race, Apolo eats foods like brown rice, pasta, potatoes, and green vegetables. His recovery meal consists of lean chicken breasts, coconut milk, and of course, vegetables.

             Lance Armstrong’s trainer, Chris Carmichael, mentioned his athlete’s strict diet with good essential fats, quality carbohydrates, and everything in right proportions. If Lance was eating Big Macs and drinking soda, then the only way he would make it up those hills during Tour de France is with a motorcycle.

  It’s About the Message

             The reason why I was frustrated about McDonald’s commercials is that the wrong message was portrayed. Many Olympians are idols to young generation, and fast food companies are using it to promote their products. There is nothing wrong with McDonald’s being a sponsor of the Olympics, but it’s wrong to associate fast food with the world’s top athletes.

             So, if we want to end up on the Olympic podium, instead of the scales on the Biggest Loser, we need to have a different message here. A message that would show top athletes achieve their glory through hard work, good diet, and dedication. If you’re an athlete and your diet consists of junk food, then the Olympic podium is definitely not for you.