Methodist Healthcare - May 16, 2023
by Claudia Zapata-Elliott, MS, RD

Ladies, we do it all. Our instinct to nurture drives us to do everything for our families, and the way we pour our love and energy into caring for others is nothing short of remarkable.

And yet, we’re losing ourselves in the process, allowing ourselves to get overwhelmed and exhausted and heartsick from self-neglect.

Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States, while strokes and heart attacks cause one in three female deaths. More than ever, they affect younger women, most of whom don’t recognize the warning signs. The good news? Eighty percent of all cardiovascular events are preventable, and the best way to truly show our loved ones we care is to care for ourselves first.

As the heart of your family, here are ten ways to show yourself love, some of which may surprise you (GNO, anyone?):

1. Make it colorful.

Fill your plate with color with a variety of heart-healthy vegetables. Aim for 7-8 servings a day (pro tip: half your plate should be veggies), and focus on dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables, including cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. Enjoy them fresh, steamed, roasted, or sautéed. Have salads with dark greens or a mix of greens regularly (tip: have salads topped with vinegar and oil first to help stabilize blood sugar). And remember, fresh and seasonal fruits and vegetables are ideal, but frozen and canned (without additives) also fit the bill.

Also, limit fruit to 2 servings per day and include fruits like blueberries, citrus, kiwis, and apples which you can add to salads or incorporate into smoothies or as a snack. These fruits have a lower glycemic value, so that they won’t raise your blood sugar. For even better blood sugar control, pair them with protein or healthy fat or have them at the end of a meal.

2. Move daily.

The best exercise is the one you will do - and enjoy! Exercise boosts your good cholesterol and helps with that all-important blood sugar control. Try to include some time outdoors, which research shows may help with mental health and cognition, and incorporate strength training with weights, pilates, or bodyweight exercises to help maintain and build muscle mass - a key to weight management. Also, striving to stay flexible and mobile is key to healthy aging. How to stay accountable? Exercise with friends, attend group classes and whatever you do, put your workouts on your calendar and keep your appointments with yourself. Remember, it’s your oxygen mask first!

3. Don’t fear fat.

Heart-healthy fats include avocados, walnuts, sardines, salmon, and olive oil. They help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, support cell growth, protect your organs, and control cholesterol and blood pressure. Studies show a diet rich in healthy fats is associated with better weight management. Plus, fats are filling, and along with protein and fiber, every meal should include a healthy fat for optimal health and to help keep you fuller longer.

5. Prioritize sleep.

No one’s happy when mama doesn’t sleep well, including our bodies and brains. Sleeping less than 6 hours a night is associated with poor blood sugar control, increased hunger and cravings, and weight gain. For better sleep, regulate your circadian rhythm by getting sunlight for at least 5 minutes during the first hour of waking and again in the evening and dimming lights at sundown. These simple practices improve mood, focus, and energy during the day and sleep at night. And, at least two hours before bedtime, avoid food and alcohol and ditch the TV, phones, and other screens. Add a magnesium supplement to your evening routine to help you relax and fall asleep. Finally, make your bedroom cold and dark to help you stay asleep.

6. Ditch the sugar.

A diet high in added sugars increases insulin resistance - your body’s ability to process blood sugars. In the short term, too much sugar affects mood, hunger, focus, and energy. And long term, a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar has been directly linked to obesity, diabetes, various cancers, dementia, and heart disease.

Spotting added sugars on ingredient lists can be tricky as there are many names food companies use to sneak it in. Along with sugars that end in “ose,” such as maltose or sucrose, other names for sugar include high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, corn syrup, corn sweetener, raw sugar, syrup, honey, or fruit juice concentrates. You should also read nutrition facts labels and remember this simple formula: 4 grams of sugar are equivalent to 1 teaspoon. The American Heart Association advises a daily limit of 6 teaspoons for women per day.

7. See your friends.

Relationships and human connection are protective, helping us emotionally when needed most, boosting immunity, and lowering blood pressure. Schedule quality time together, and beyond girls' night out, also plan walks and workouts with your besties. My friends and I make time to power walk and talk a few times a week, and it's rewarding in so many ways.

8. Prioritize protein.

Dietary protein builds and repairs muscle and keeps us fuller longer. Opt for seafood like salmon, trout, sardines, and anchovies, which are rich in heart-healthy omega-3s, and also quality poultry, but don’t discount eggs or plant sources of protein like beans and nuts, which contain the building blocks of protein and are also great sources of fiber and antioxidants.

9. Limit alcohol.

The latest research shows no amount of alcohol is healthy - it not only interferes with our sleep but it’s also associated with an increased risk of certain cancers and raises both triglycerides and LDL, the “bad” cholesterol. If you’re going to drink, keep it to one drink a night on weekends and special occasions. The less you drink, the better.

10. Practice mindfulness.

Consistent mindfulness decreases stress and anxiety, improves focus and memory, and strengthens relationships. Place a gratitude journal on your nightstand, and before bedtime, write down three things that went well that day. Set up an alarm or alert to remind you to meditate or practice breathing at the same time every day. Use an app if it helps. Your families will thank you.

About the Author:

Claudia Zapata Elliott, MS, RD, is a health ambassador for Methodist Healthcare, a nutrition consultant, and the creator of The Diplomacy Diet. This nutrition consulting practice helps women negotiate their way to better health and broker peace with their bodies.