Special health series part one: Becoming heart-healthy

Welcome to part one of our health quest—the heart!

Everyone wants to be healthier today, so what better place than to start with the driving organ behind all things we do in life?

As mentioned last week, each part of our journey together will start with some of the body basics of the organ system we are looking to help. Then on to HOW we can chow down to support these organs, starting today!

Enter, the cardiovascular system.

IMG_7440Who are the key players in our cardiovascular system?

Blood, blood vessels and—you better believe it, the heart!

To impress your doctor pals at your next dinner party, here are some of the basics on the heart—Nerd alert!

(From “Biology, Oakland University Edition,” by Brooker, Widmaier, Graham and Stiling, a McGraw Hill book.)

The heart:

Our heart is made up of two upper chambers called atria (or our left and right atrium) as well as two lower chambers called ventricles (or what we call our left and right ventricles).

Each of these four heart chambers is separated by atrioventicular valves (or AV valves for short) and semilunar valves. These valves just control the movement of blood in between the chambers.

Our blood is carried to the heart through systemic and pulmonary veins and blood is carried away from the heart in systemic and pulmonary arteries.

Pulmonary simply means that the blood is coming or going from our lungs and systemic just means the blood is coming or going from the rest of our body.

To control the movement of blood to the rest of our body, our aorta pumps blood into these systemic arteries. (The pulmonary arteries carry blood to our lungs.)

Our heart muscle is called myocardium, just for reference.

And finally, how does our heart ‘beat’?

Photo courtesy of WebMD.com

Photo courtesy of WebMD.com

We have what is called a sinoatrial node (SA node for short) that is often called our pacemaker that sends electrical messages to the surround heart chambers, telling them to expand, filling with blood (diastole) and contract, moving the blood (systole), to creat our cardiac cycle.

Whew! See, that wasn’t too bad, was it?

Now we know some background information on perhaps the most important organ in our body!

So why is it a good idea to keep our heart ‘ticking’ properly?

“It’s important at a very young age to start eating well and heart-smart or have a healthy lifestyle because as you age, your health does catch up with you,” Stephanie Secontine, M.S., R.D. is a clinical dietitian at the Ministrelli Women’s Heart Center of Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak.

Secontine often sees patients in their 50s and 60s who exhibit all complications related to metabolic syndrome, which includes hyperlipidemia (or elevated levels of lipids—fats in our blood), high blood pressure, diabetes and elevated BMI (or body mass index relating to weight gain).

So it’s no wonder she is a strong advocate for eating a well-rounded diet and eating whole foods rather than taking a ton of supplements, as “the optimal way to eat for a heart-healthy diet.”

It’s important to take care of our hearts, noted. What’s the payoff?

Perhaps the biggest perk in eating to support our heart is avoiding chronic disease, she says.

“You’re going to ward off all sorts of (problems) later in life and then you can actually enjoy your retirement and enjoy your later years with being healthy,” Secontine said.

But there are many more reasons why somebody would want to be proactive in their health at an early age. Low cholesterol, low lipid levels and maintaining a healthy weight are among the top reasons.

While eating smart to help our heart, it is important to note that exercising is a key component, Secontine says.

“Staying active and eating healthy is a way to also keep your mind active and prevent a lot of the degenerative neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s,” she said.

(Even though our special eries is zoomed in on how we can change our eating habits to improve our health, we don’t want you to forget that getting some fresh air while strolling through the park can be just as helpful in maintaining that muscular organ we have pounding away in our chest!)

How do we become heart smart? Foods we can eat to pump up our heart health

Certified nutrition therapist Anne Baker of Nourish Holistic Nutrition suggests browsing interactive websites like Pinterest when looking for basic to chef-level recipes to incorporate any of the following foods into your meal plan. And don’t forget to share your favorite heart-healthy recipe with us!

Limiting red meat intake

One of the most frequent questions Baker hears is ‘how much red meat can we eat?’

While she notes varying opinions, Baker shares that people who do eat more red meat are more prone to cardiovascular events such as a heart attack (medically known as a myocardial infarction, since we are all about learning a few things here!).

So she recommends sticking to a 3.5 ounce-serving one to two times a week or less.

“Limit it like a treat,” she said, “And spend a little more money on it to get the good product.”

Aim for the grass-fed or wild-caught beef when possible, she said.

Fish and essential fatty acids

If we are talking about preventing cardiovascular inflammation or even therapeutically treating someone with a cardio condition, Baker says the often-recommended two grams per day of omega-3 fatty acids really isn’t cutting it for most people.

“What we’re finding is that a lot of people actually need anywhere from four to six grams a day,” she said. “That’s something that a lot of people don’t know about.”

For most it is difficult to consume this quantity of fatty acids daily from fish or walnuts for example, so Baker suggests consulting your physician about safe supplementing.


Recently, studies have been published showing that people who were consuming large doses of calcium in supplements were experiencing atherosclerosis (or hardening of the arteries), Baker said.

“We were always taught that calcium is best absorbed through food,” she said, “And it’s best taken with food if you are supplementing.”

It’s also important to remember that our body can only absorb so much calcium at once. So eating calcium-rich foods—like broccoli, seaweed and many leafy greens—throughout the day is a great goal.

Baker also recommends cooking with bone broth because of its restorative properties.

A tip when cooking with meat on the bone is to add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, which helps to break down the bone and “that’s where the minerals are,” she said.

Antioxidants: Behold, berry power!

Snacking on antioxidants is important for so many reasons, Baker says, mainly because we want to stop reactive oxidative species (or small molecules, ions and radicals that can damage other cells and the ones they are attached to).

And the way to do that is to eat a lot of brightly colored vegetables and fruits. This will be especially easy to do as spring brings a bountiful selection of locally-grown veggies and fruits.

Some of the more potent choices include grapes and dark cherries but all berries are beneficial when eating for our heart because they’re low in the glycemic index (a ranking of foods on a scale from 1 to 100 based on their effect on blood-sugar levels).

And “they’re very loaded with good antioxidants,” she said.

What is your favorite source of antioxidant? Be sure to share with us!

Mediterranean Diet and the DASH diet

Working with heart patients daily, Secontine puts her own guidelines into motion by recommending the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet.

The Mediterranean Diet

A recent Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) study showed that patients who followed a particular diet high in olive oil had a 30 percent decrease in risk of developing a cardiovascular event.

It is important to note that the patients who participated were already at risk for cardiovascular events and they had cardiovascular disease, Secontine said.

“After just five years, (researchers) ended the study because it was so significant; because the people that were actually following this diet had less events than the people that weren’t,” she said.

For more information on the Mediterranean Diet, you will want to visit www.jama.jamanetwork.com.

The DASH diet

The DASH (or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is used to treat hypertension (or high blood pressure), is similar to a Mediterranean diet and one that Secontine uses for many of her patients.

“It’s the most popular and most effective therapeutic diet out there for hypertension and cardiovascular disease,” Secontine said, “It’s very effective for lowering blood pressure and for weight loss, as well.”

You can visit www.dashdiet.org for more information.

Interested in chatting with Anne Baker or Stephanie Secontine? Send reporter Jen Bucciarelli a note at JenBucciarelli@gmail.com!

Coming next week:

Don’t forget to check back next Thursday for part two of our health quest—boosting our endocrine system!

And please don’t be shy, join the conversation! Send your thoughts about our health quest to reporter Jen Bucciarelli at JenBucciarelli@gmail.com—What do you want to see more of? Any particular body system that you want us to highlight? Share your story!

About Jen Bucciarelli

Veggie lover and aspiring word chef, reporter Jen Bucciarelli covers all things health and medicine for Rochester Media and The Community Edge. She is always on the hunt for local experts who can help improve the lives of our readers. Send her a note at JenBucciarelli@gmail.com.

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