When it comes to heart health, the DASH and Mediterranean diets are synonymous with being good for your ticker. Both of these diets focus on consuming copious amounts of whole foods – fruits, vegetables, and whole grains chief among them – while reducing intake of foods that are high in sodium and saturated and trans fats. While it’s well-known that they can help improve cardiovascular function, new research has shown that combining certain components of the DASH and Mediterranean diets can improve brain function, too. The MIND diet (short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), developed by an epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center, has been shown to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by between 35 and 53 percent.
The MIND diet is centered on ten “brain-healthy” food groups that appear in DASH and/or the Mediterranean diet: leafy green vegetables, other vegetables, berries, nuts, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine. The diet involves eating at least three servings of whole grains, a salad made with leafy greens, and one other vegetable each day. A daily glass of wine is encouraged, although not required. Snacking is also encouraged, with nuts being the snack of choice. Other recommendations include consuming beans every other day, poultry and berries at least two times a week, and fish at least once a week.
The MIND diet also includes five “unhealthy” food groups: red meat, butter and stick margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried and fast food. Like all good diets, the MIND diet does not advocate cutting these foods out completely; instead, it designates them as “sometimes” foods that should be consumed in small amounts (less than one tablespoon of butter a day; less than a serving each of cheese, fried food, and fast food a week; fewer than four servings a week of red meat; and fewer than five servings a week of pastries or sweets).
The MIND diet is fairly easy to follow, as it offers suggestions more than hard-and-fast rules. If you’d like to follow the MIND diet, all you need to do is follow the guidelines above for consuming a variety of foods from the ten brain-healthy food groups and a limited amount of foods from the unhealthy food groups. Eating a balanced diet that includes treats in moderation is an easy way to improve your eating habits, and quite possibly, your brain and heart health, too.
We have all heard that we need to cut back on sodium; the Recommended Daily Intake for most Americans is less than 2,300 mg a day, but most of us consume upwards of 3,400 mg! The RDI for sodium is roughly equivalent to one teaspoon of table salt, but most of our dietary sodium doesn’t come from table salt – it comes from processed and convenience foods. Studies have shown that the majority of a typical American’s diet comes from processed foods, so it’s no surprise that sodium intakes are so high in this country. Not only can consuming too much sodium cause visible signs like fluid retention and bloating, but it can lead to high blood pressure and the serious health consequences (like an increased risk of heart attack and stroke) that come along with it.
It can seem difficult to control your sodium intake given the high sodium counts in foods we consume every day. The most common sources of dietary sodium are:
- breads and rolls
- chicken and chicken dishes
- egg dishes
- pasta dishes
All of these foods can still be enjoyed in moderation, especially if you take steps to look for lower-sodium alternatives. Read labels and look for lower-sodium varieties of your favorite products:
- Sodium-free = less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
- Very-low-sodium = 35 mg or less of sodium per serving
- Low-sodium = 140 mg or less of sodium per serving
- Reduced or less sodium = sodium at least 25% less per serving than the regular version of that food
- Light or light in sodium = sodium at least 50% less per serving than the regular version of that food
- No salt added = no salt is added during the processing in a food that usually had salt added
A good rule of thumb is that products containing less than 5% of the RDI for sodium are low-sodium and good choices, while those containing more than 25% of the RDI are high-sodium and poor choices.
When preparing meals at home, try lowering their sodium content by substituting spices for salt, limiting condiments and sauces (which tend to be very high in sodium), and rinsing canned veggies or beans before consuming (you’ll get rid of around half of the sodium this way). Additionally, try to consume as many high-potassium foods as possible – potassium helps clear sodium from your body. Good sources of potassium include sweet potatoes, mushrooms, oranges, bananas, and low-fat and fat-free milk and yogurt.
February is Heart Month, and I’m sure we’ve all been hearing a lot about controlling two chronic conditions that, when left untreated, can lead to heart disease – high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Previous posts have focused on treating high cholesterol and high blood pressure with food. While it’s important to be aware of the many treatment options available to you (especially those that focus on diet and exercise in lieu of medication), it’s just as important to understand what causes these conditions in the first place.
High blood pressure is often known as the “silent killer,” because it has no symptoms, and some people learn that they have it only after they suffer a heart attack or stroke. Many other people, however, are lucky enough to be diagnosed with hypertension as part of a routine visit to their doctor’s office, allowing them to begin treatment before suffering long-term damage. No matter when a person gets diagnosed with hypertension, they probably ask, “why me?” In some cases, the cause of high blood pressure may be obvious – chronic stress, family history. But for many others, it’s a complete shock and mystery.
For some people, there is really no identifiable cause of hypertension. It can develop gradually as you age, creeping up slowly as the years go by. For others, an underlying medical condition or a medication being taken for another health issue are to blame. Hypertension can be caused by conditions as varied as kidney problems, tumors of the adrenal gland, or congenital blood vessel defects. It can also be caused by common medications such as oral contraceptives, cold medicine and decongestants, and over-the-counter pain relievers. In these cases, treating hypertension simply involves treating the condition or stopping the medication that caused it.
Other people develop what’s known as “white coat hypertension,” which stems from the nervousness that accompanies a visit to the doctor’s office. This form of hypertension often only appears at the start of a doctor’s appointment. Other variables that can temporarily raise blood pressure, some of which may come into play right before your blood pressure is checked, include eating, standing up from a seated position, talking, exercising, or watching an exciting tv show. In order to get the most accurate blood pressure reading, try to stay calm at the doctor’s office and refrain from performing any of the activities known to cause blood pressure to rise. Also be sure to talk with your doctor about any underlying conditions you may have or medications you take, as these could all be the culprits of your high blood pressure. Treating these issues is often a lot easier – on your body and wallet – than going on blood pressure medication.