Is it so bad to have a second piece of cake or to skip a week of exercising when you feel overwhelmed by work, kids, life? The experts say no, as long as you don’t convince yourself it’s always okay. “We all need an occasional break from being ‘good,’” says psychologist Carol Kauffman, Ph.D.
But if rationalizing that you can be “bad” here and there becomes a pattern, it can sabotage all your stay-well efforts. To keep your ticker on track for the long run, be aware of these six common little lies about heart health.
YOU TELL YOURSELF: My “bad” cholesterol is high, but I don’t have to worry because my “good” cholesterol is high, too.
Reality Check: “A really high LDL (bad) cholesterol reading can outweigh the benefits of high HDL (good) cholesterol,” says cardiovascular researcher Christie Mitchell Ballantyne, MD. LDL cholesterol should be less than 100 and HDL cholesterol should be 60 or higher – preferably in the 80s. “The further you are from that optimal LDL level, the less likely a high HDL will protect you,” Dr. Ballantyne says.
To lower LDL cholesterol, eat lots of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nonfat dairy and lean protein. One study found that adding plant foods (salad, vegetables, beans) to a low-saturated fat diet lowered LDL more than simply cutting saturated fat alone. And don’t cut out all fats: Eliminating unsaturated fats can cause both good and bad cholesterol to drop. Aim to get about 20 to 25 percent of your calories from unsaturated fats like olive and canola oil and less than 5 to 6 percent from saturated fat, which is found in animal products like meat and dairy.
YOU TELL YOURSELF: I don’t have to work out – chasing my kids around is enough.
Reality Check: If you spend an hour or so a day running after your kids, you are getting some heart health benefits – a modest calorie burn, an immune-system boost and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But it’s the more intense, sustained movement lasting 30 minutes or more that provides the maximum health and weight-loss benefits, says Heather Fink, R.D., a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. Solution: Transform kid duty into exercise. If you typically stroll in the park with your 2-year-old, for example, pick up the pace and try to log in 30 minutes. And while your child naps or plays, strength-train at home. Build a workout around push-ups, lunges, walking lunges, squats (sitting in a chair then standing up), calf raises (going up and down on your toes when you’re standing on a stair) and tricep dips. “Try to do 8 to 12 reps and two sets of each exercise,” Fink says. You can also use easy at-home equipment such as resistance bands and hand weights.
YOU TELL YOURSELF … I can have two glasses of red wine – research shows it’s heart healthy.
Reality Check: Old drink think: Drinking in moderation is good for your heart health. New drink think: Any amount of alcohol can increase the risk of heart disease, according to a large study in JAMA Network Open, which involved more than 370,000 adults. The researchers concluded that alcohol shouldn’t be recommended to improve heart health, but rather, reducing alcohol intake will likely reduce heart disease risk in everyone, even if you’re in the habit of having just one alcoholic beverage per day, such as wine with dinner. “But, as in all things in life, you have to balance things with whatever pleasure you derive from having the occasional drink or two,” says Jim Cheung, MD, spokesperson for the American College of Cardiology Electrophysiology Council.
YOU TELL YOURSELF: I don’t need a statin. I’ll just take a supplement to lower my cholesterol.
Reality Check: Americans spend about $50 billion on supplements annually in the U.S., with nearly 20 percent taking them for “heart health.” But supplements marketed for heart health don’t provide the cholesterol-lowering benefits of statin medication, according to recent study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. In the study, 199 patients with high LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol took a low-dose statin (rosuvastatin) or one of six common daily supplements promoted for “cholesterol health,” including fish oil, cinnamon, garlic with 5,000 mcg of allicin, turmeric, plant sterols or red yeast rice. After 28 days, the researchers found that the statin reduced LDL cholesterol by 38 percent. In the supplement groups, there were no significant changes in LDL cholesterol or other forms of cholesterol, including HDL cholesterol and triglycerides. “Rosuvastatin lowers LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol and triglycerides significantly more than placebo, fish oil, cinnamon, garlic, turmeric, plant sterols and red yeast rice,” says the study’s principal investigator, Luke Laffin, MD, co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at Cleveland Clinic.
YOU TELL YOURSELF: I can get by on five hours a sleep a night.
Reality Check: Getting less than seven hours of sleep each night can increase your risk of high blood pressure, which is one of the leading risks for heart disease and stroke. Moreover, being a sleep underachiever can lead to weight gain. People who typically get five hours a night also have 15 percent higher levels of ghrelin, a hormone that can stimulate appetite, than those who get eight hours, according to researchers at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of heart disease by increasing blood pressure, LDL (“the bad”) cholesterol levels and blood sugar. Excess weight also makes your heart work harder to send blood to all the cells in your body.
YOU TELL YOURSELF: I’m not overweight, I’m just big-boned.
Reality Check: It might be hard to hear, but if your body-mass index (BMI) – a measure of fat based on height and weight is 25 or higher, you may need to lose 5 to 10 percent of your weight to optimize your health, Dr. Ballantyne says. Unfortunately, bone mass can constitute only 4 to 7 percent of your total weight – about 6 to 10 pounds if you weigh 150 – and that’s considered too small to affect BMI. Calculate your BMI at nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm, the web site for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.