THE SPECIALIST: Dr. Mary Ann McLaughlin
The medical director of the cardiac health program at Mount Sinai Heart, Dr. Mary Ann McLaughlin helps men and women of all ages protect their heart health. February is American Heart Month.
WHO’S AT RISK
With Super Bowl Sunday following weeks of frigid temperatures, it’s a treacherous time for sticking to New Year’s resolutions about getting fit.
“Considering that physical and emotional stress can be a trigger for heart attacks, it’s a good idea to head into Super Bowl parties with a game plan for protecting your health,” says McLaughlin. “In the midwinter, it’s really easy to turn into a couch-potato, but a few simple strategies to eat smart and keep moving during the game can make a big difference.”
About a fifth to a quarter of Americans are affected by metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors associated specifically with abdominal obesity. “Belly fat is more dangerous to your health than carrying fat on other parts of the body,” says McLaughlin. “In particular, belly fat and the metabolic syndrome it causes are a major risk for heart disease.”
There are a cluster of red flags associated with metabolic syndrome. “You’re considered at risk if you have a waist of 40 inches for a man, or 35 inches for a woman,” says McLaughlin. “Other risk factors are fasting blood triglycerides over 150 mg, or a low good cholesterol [HDL] count.”
One of the reasons it’s so important to spot metabolic syndrome is that it’s associated with co-morbidities like sleep apnea and low testosterone.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Metabolic syndrome is a pretty straightforward diagnosis. “The main symptom is actually a visible sign — abdominal obesity,” says McLaughlin. “Secondary symptoms include fatigue, especially after a high-carb meal, decreased exercise ability, increased blood sugar levels, and even thirst and urination.”
The treatment options for metabolic syndrome are similarly straightforward: “exercise and diet,” says McLaughlin. “And the problem with the Super Bowl is the temptation just to eat the whole time, munching for hours on high caloric food, which is why I recommend forming a heart-healthy game plan before you sit down to the big game.”
Here are 10 tips to help keep your resolutions from going off the rails at a Super Bowl party.
1. Get your exercise in before the game. Just 30 minutes a day of brisk walking is the recommendation for keeping your heart healthy.
2. Eat a healthy meal before you leave home. “An empty stomach just makes it harder to avoid the temptation to snack through the whole game,” says McLaughlin.
3. Hydrate like an athlete. “Act like one of the players,” says McLaughlin. “Drink water to fill you up before you go to a Super Bowl party, and keep drinking throughout the game.” Even light beer has about 100 calories a pop.
4. Snack on nuts. Instead of eating something like a high-calorie party snack mix, which has a lot of butter, you’ll get protein and other nutrients if you switch to pistachios, almonds or walnuts.
5. Two apples a day keep the doctor away. “Two medium-size apples a day has been shown to lower cholesterol almost as much as a statin drug,” says McLaughlin. “Green apples have pectin, which is an appetite suppressant.” Put out apple slices, but make sure they’re unpeeled — the skin is the source of many health benefits.
6. Skip cheesy dips. Instead of a seven-layer dip, put out salsa or even guacamole.
7. Opt for baked chips. McLaughlin recommends making your own kale chips. “Toss the kale in a bag with garlic salt and olive oil, then bake it on a cookie sheet at 350.”
8. Swap turkey for ground beef. Chili is a Super Bowl classic, and turkey chili can be guilt free, as long as you don’t load up on sour cream and cheese.
9. Make dessert dark chocolate and fruit.
10. Build in some group exercise. “Instead of competitions like beer pong, do a few competitive situps, pushups and squats,” says McLaughlin. “And use the halftime show to take a walk.”
Keeping moving and eating smart can make a world of difference for your health. “If you can get rid of that waist, you do yourself a huge favor when it comes to heart disease,” says McLaughlin. “But of course you have to be patient with yourself. You took a long time putting that belly fat there, and you’re going to have to put in the time in taking it off.”
Doctors are developing new tools to keep the heart and arteries healthy. “One of the most promising things in the works is medications that block the LDL cholesterol receptors,” says McLaughlin. “The second thing we’re hoping to develop is noninvasive imaging tools to find what we call the soft, high-risk plaque, which contributes to heart attacks.”
QUESTIONS FOR YOUR DOCTOR
If you’ve been identified as being at moderate to high risk for heart disease, ask, “Should I get a coronary calcium score?” It’s an inexpensive and noninvasive CT scan of the heart that is effective for measuring your risk of heart attack and helping the doctor determine a course of treatment.
If your partner says you snore or hold your breath at night, ask, “Would I benefit from a sleep study?” By getting tested and making lifestyle modifications, you can dramatically reduce your chance of developing metabolic syndrome or having a heart attack.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Get informed. Two reliable sources for heart-healthy tips are the American Heart Association (heart.org) and Mount Sinai Heart (mountsinai.org/heart).
Know your numbers. Everyone should know their blood pressure, good and bad cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. “Starting at age 20, everyone should have their cholesterol profile taken at least every five years,” says McLaughlin.
Watch your waist. Fat carried around the belly compromises your health more than fat in other places. You’re considered at elevated risk of developing metabolic syndrome if your waist is over 40 inches for men, 35 for women.
Know your family history. Ask your family if any relatives had heart disease at any early age. If you have a family history, tell the doctor.