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Heart Smart

February may be the month for sweethearts, but it’s also the time heart-health advocates want you to take special note of your own heart—and making sure it isn’t, in fact, getting too many sweets—or, perhaps more importantly, threatened by high cholesterol.

Avoid trans fats
Later this summer, restaurants in New York City will be required to use oils and margarine with less than half a gram of trans fats per serving, and eliminate trans fats from all other foods by July 2008.

Trans fats are fats that are artificially saturated to give them a firmer consistency, and are associated with significantly higher risks for heart disease.

“It’s like taking liquid oil and raising it to the consistency of margarine,” says Dr. Thomas Whayne, a cardiologist at the UK HealthCare Linda and Jack Gill Heart Institute at the University of Kentucky.

Check cholesterol levels
One of the greatest risk factors for having a heart attack or stroke is high cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends having a total cholesterol reading of less than 200. It should be even lower for people who have had a heart attack, a stroke, or have other risk factors, including a family history of heart disease and strokes, obesity, arrhythmia, diabetes, high blood pressure, and peripheral arterial disease. Check with your doctor if you’re not sure if you’re at risk.

In addition to monitoring total cholesterol, the levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) should be 40 or higher.

“Everyone over 20 should know their total cholesterol, HDL, LDL (the “bad” cholesterol), and triglycerides,” Dr. Whayne says. “Over age 40, it’s good to have these blood lipids (fats) checked every year.”

Smart dining out
In addition to avoiding trans fats, Dr. Whayne says there are other dietary choices that can help keep a rein on cholesterol levels, particularly when dining out.

“I think you can eat just about anything in moderation, if you have an awareness of calories taken in and calories burned,” he explains. “There’s nothing wrong with having a small steak (about the size of a deck of cards), as long as you keep the calories limited. Don’t eat a rich meal and then eat a rich dessert.”

In fact, limiting simple sugars (very sweet tasting foods) is an overall good rule of thumb, Dr. Whayne says. Such sugars can raise blood fat. Instead, make your splurge at the beginning of the meal with a small appetizer and then eat light—soup and salad, for example, if the menu is limited.

Some restaurants also offer reduced-calorie or heart-healthy menus, and don’t be afraid to order a la carte, or separate, items that are not necessarily presented together on the menu as a meal.

“There’s nothing wrong with ordering vegetables instead of the french fries that come with the club sandwich,” Dr. Whayne says. “You can also ask for rice or beans.” Ask for olive oil or vinegar-based dressings, and use olive oil in place of margarine for bread.

A final step Dr. Whayne practices has more to do with what he doesn’t eat.

“I never eat food just to have a clean plate,” he says. “If I am not truly hungry, I do not hesitate to leave food on the plate and do not take a second helping.”

For more information on heart disease and stroke, visit the Gill Heart Institute online at and choose “Heart Health Information,” or call (859) 323-5479 or (877) 700-5479.

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