February is Heart Month so it’s a good time to be mindful about any risk factors you may have. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US. It accounts for 1 in every 4 deaths each year.

What are those risks?

  1. High blood pressure
  2. High cholesterol
  3. Overweight and obesity
  4. Diabetes
  5. Smoking
  6. Age, gender and family history

Some risk factors can’t be changed (issues you were born with, aging, gender). However, other risks can be modified. Don’t smoke, know your numbers, work on your diet, improve your fitness level and your weight. You can live well with risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes. The key is to stick to a healthy diet and lifestyle, and check your numbers regularly. Here’s a quick rundown.

High Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is the force in which blood moves through your arteries. According to the American College of Cardiology, blood pressure falls into the following categories:

  • Normal: Less than 120/80 mm Hg
  • High Blood Pressure, Stage 1: Systolic between 130-139 or diastolic between 80-89
  • High Blood Pressure Stage 2: Systolic at least 140 or diastolic at least 90 mm Hg
  • Hypertensive crisis: Systolic over 180 and/or diastolic over 120 (may require immediate hospitalization)

Since high blood pressure (also called hypertension) often shows no outward signs, adults should have their blood pressure checked annually. If you are diagnosed with hypertension, you should take a look at your diet and lifestyle habits. Quit smoking and cut back on alcohol if you drink often (the recommendation is no more than 1-2 drinks a day). Adopt the DASH Diet to help lower high blood pressure. Even with a healthy diet, you may need medication. In my professional opinion, if you can manage your blood pressure mostly with diet, requiring smaller doses of medication, that’s a good thing and worth the effort.

Having multiple risk factors increases your risk for heart disease. So, what about your blood cholesterol numbers?

High Cholesterol

While some people have a familial (runs in your family) type of high cholesterol and abnormal blood lipids (fats), diet has a big role to play. Your doctor will determine what your overall risk is, and whether or not you need a cholesterol-lowering medications. Like blood pressure, it’s important to know your numbers. A normal blood cholesterol is <200 (200-239 is borderline high, and >240 is high, but your doctor will determine your goals based on total risk). In addition to the total cholesterol numbers, your doctor may also review other factors. These include evaluating other fats in the blood called lipoproteins (HDL and LDL – sometimes referred to as “good” and “bad” blood fats).

If you don’t have multiple risk factors however, I encourage you to ask your physician if you can do a diet therapy trial first.

Weight Management

You may struggle with maintaining a healthy weight. Keep in mind that it may not be necessary to achieve an “ideal” weight, but instead, just work on gradually losing a little bit of weight. Even a small weight loss can reduce your blood pressure and is less stress on your heart and body. Find professional support so you can set realistic goals, enjoy meal planning and stay on track.


Managing your weight also helps reduce risk of diabetes. Diabetes is a disease where the body has trouble getting glucose into cells. Glucose is a sugar molecule flowing through your bloodstream. It’s the fuel your body uses for energy. Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas that helps deliver glucose to the body’s cells. In diabetes, the insulin isn’t working properly and the energy isn’t getting to cells and systems in the body as it should. Therefore, glucose builds up in the bloodstream.

Our blood sugar fluctuates all day long, and increases after we eat or drink beverages with calories. A normal fasting glucose ranges from 80-100. It’s a good idea to check your blood sugar regularly (using a glucometer – a blood sugar meter). You might be asked to test blood sugar in the morning, before or after meals, and at bedtime. Follow your doctor’s orders, and if you haven’t seen a certified diabetes educator (CDE), ask your doctor to refer you. A CDE can spend more time with you and provide individualized advice.

Find out more…

You can read more about your heart, blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and diet in Chapters 6 through 10 in our book, DASH Diet For Dummies, 2nd edition.