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By Gina Cousineau

Nationally, we observe “American Heart Month” in February to raise awareness to the importance of a healthy heart and encourage healthy habits meant to reduce our risk of heart disease.

This campaign encourages individuals to take up a healthy habit, educate themselves, and get their cholesterol tested.

When clients reach out to me, they usually do so with the goal of weight loss, but as an integrative nutritionist, I cannot in good conscience help them reach their weight-loss goals without addressing what might be happening under the hood.

This then leads to a conversation about their family’s medical history, as well as their own personal medical history, lifestyle behaviors of past and present, along with looking at basic blood work and preventative screening tests to assess their situation.

What I come to find out is that most are unaware of the significance of this information, and for those who were told of an area of concern, some are minimized by their medical providers, and others choose to ignore the facts.

Given that heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans, I take this opportunity to help you advocate for your heart health, prioritizing the information provided below, especially as we age.

Understanding Your Risk

While there are many “heart disease calculators” that claim to assess our risk, I am going to suggest the following based on my client population and what I have seen anecdotally.

Family history of cardiovascular disease (especially early disease), paired with your blood lipid profile, smoking history, and kidney health status, are a good starting place.

If your total cholesterol, low density lipoproteins (LDL), and/or triglycerides are out of range, even just a little bit, even if your high-density lipoproteins (HDL) are high, you could be laying down plaque.

If you are at risk, asking your provider about a calcium score (a CT of the arteries around your heart) and carotid ultrasound allows for a look “inside” to understand your plaque risk. Another important blood test, indicating a genetic predisposition toward CVD, is lipoprotein a (LPa).

Because this affects 20% of the population, you should consider asking for this test with your yearly blood work. This information, paired with shared decision-making, allows you and your provider to decide on a course of action, if needed.

Eating a Healthy Diet

Choosing a mostly plant-based diet, including lean proteins (animal and/or plant), nonfat/lowfat dairy and other protein-rich calcium sources, as well as healthy fats, is highly encouraged, while limiting saturated fats, added sugars and sodium.

Remember that “plants” comprise a wide variety of foods, including whole grains, legumes, nuts/seeds, vegetables, fruit, and tofu products.

This doesn’t mean you need to count calories—though given our obesity epidemic and the fact that losing 5-10% of your weight can improve your health dramatically—but just eating more wholesome food, in general, can be a lifesaver.

Getting Physically Active

The thought of starting an exercise program is often as daunting as the concept of adjusting one’s diet. While I understand the fear of change, neither needs to be a scary proposition.

Given where we live, beautiful South Orange County, all one needs to do is step outside their door and allow their feet to do the walking. That’s it!

While I always suggest starting with a “walking program,” this is simply to make this fitness routine part of your daily life, like toothbrushing. You need it to be healthy.

For more information on how to understand your risk of heart disease, visit nationaltoday.com and heart.org.

Gina Cousineau sees clients virtually and in person out of her San Clemente office. Her extensive education—a BS in dietetics and MS in integrative and functional nutrition—chef training, and 30-plus years as a fitness professional allow her to help clients lose weight and improve their health. You can reach her at mamag@mamagslifestyle.com, 949.842.9975, and on Instagram and Facebook @mamagslifestyle. Register for her complimentary weekly newsletter at mamagslifestyle.com.

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