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Eat more plants for a healthier heart, says UK’s Dr. Gretchen Wells

Dr. Gretchen Wells

Written by Dr. Gretchen Wells, director UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute’s Women’s Heart Health Program

Most people don’t realize that the power to prevent many diseases is in their own hands.

By exercising – even a little – and quitting smoking, you greatly reduce your risk for diabetes, heart disease and even dementia. But perhaps the easiest way to tip the odds in your favor is to change your diet. If you’re looking for a way to eat healthier, consider a plant-based diet.

A plant-based diet is based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. It excludes or minimizes meat, eggs and dairy products, as well as highly processed foods like bleached flour, refined sugar and some oils.

Numerous studies have linked a plant-based diet to lower risks of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease – as much as 30 percent, according to one Harvard study.

Don’t know where to begin? Here are some guidelines:

  • Veggies: Any vegetable, especially leafy green or yellow vegetables with high water content.
  • Fruits: No limits here, but deeply colored berries are a plus.
  • Starches: This includes starchy vegetables like potatoes as well as whole grains like oats, rice or quinoa.
  • Beans and legumes: These are starchy, but generally have a higher protein content. Consider beans, lentils and dried peas.
  • Nuts and seeds: Use sparingly to avoid weight gain.

You can adjust slowly to a plant-based diet. Adopt the popular “Meatless Mondays” trend in your home and add Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. as you go. Or experiment by adjusting your favorite recipes to be plant-based: make your chili all beans, or prepare a stir-fry with tofu or edamame instead of chicken.

Heart-healthy cooking demo at UK HealthCare

If you want some ideas, come to UK HealthCare on Saturday, Nov. 18, for “Feeding Your Heart and Soul” featuring best-selling cookbook author Jane Esselstyn. Esselstyn, who has spent most of her life advocating for a plant-based, meatless, whole-food diet, will demonstrate recipes from The Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cookbook, which she co-authored with her mother, Ann. You’ll also get the opportunity to taste some of her dishes and see for yourself that a plant-based diet can be healthy and delicious.

The morning will begin at 8 a.m. with an optional free yoga session. Esselstyn will take the stage for a brief lecture at 9 a.m., followed by a cooking demonstration at 10 a.m. and tastings at 11 a.m.

The registration fee for “Feeding Your Heart and Soul” is $15 and includes a free copy of The Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cookbook and tastings.

For more information or to register, call 859-218-0121.


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Gluten-free: Fad or medical necessity?

It’s common these days to hear people say they are avoiding gluten, and gluten-free foods are everywhere. While it’s true that going gluten-free is just a dietary fad for some people, for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, there’s a genuine medical need to avoid gluten.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in certain grains, including wheat, rye and barley. It acts as a sort of glue that holds food together, giving it its shape.

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is a genetic illness that makes a person unable to digest gluten. Eating gluten causes the body to mount an immune response that inflames and damages the small intestine, and the small intestine stops absorbing nutrients properly. This creates a host of uncomfortable symptoms, including stomach problems such as gas and diarrhea. Those with the disease might lose weight and feel tired and achy. Other symptoms include:

  • Bone, joint pain or arthritis.
  • Depression or anxiety.
  • Tingling numbness in hands and feet.
  • Fatigue.
  • Chronic diarrhea or constipation.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Sores in the mouth or tooth discoloration.

If you think you have celiac disease, your doctor can do a test to be sure.

Gluten sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity includes many of the unpleasant symptoms of celiac, but tests for celiac come back negative. While the symptoms are real, a recent study published in Gastroenterology suggests gluten sensitivity may not be sensitivity to gluten at all, but a reaction to something called FODMAPs, short-chain carbohydrates that coincidentally are found in many foods containing gluten. If you think you are gluten-sensitive, it may really be FODMAPs that are causing your problems, so do some research or talk to your doctor to make sure you’re avoiding the right foods.

Foods to avoid

If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, avoiding gluten is imperative. But there’s also nothing wrong with going gluten free if you choose to do so.

Avoiding gluten isn’t so easy – it’s found in an amazing variety of foods and drinks. Here’s a short list:

  • Beer.
  • Breads.
  • Cakes and pies.
  • Candies.
  • Cereals.
  • Cookies and crackers.
  • French fries.
  • Pastas.
  • Processed lunch meats.
  • Salad dressings and sauces, including soy sauce.
  • Seasoned rice mixes and snack foods, such as potato and tortilla chips.
  • Soups and soup bases.

What CAN you eat?

The news is not all bad. Here’s a list of things you CAN eat if you have celiac disease:

  • Fruits.
  • Vegetables.
  • Most meat, poultry, fish and seafood.
  • Dairy.
  • Beans, legumes and nuts.

Gluten-free also doesn’t mean you have to give up bread. There are many safe breads and snacks made with gluten-free ingredients. These foods are made with grains and starches from plants including rice, corn, quinoa, gluten-free oats and many others. Wheat-free doesn’t always mean gluten-free, so check nutrition labels.

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Author of heart-healthy cookbook to speak at UK on Nov. 18

Popular cookbook author Jane Esselstyn is coming to UK HealthCare on Nov. 18 for a lecture and cooking demonstration about the benefits of a plant-based diet for heart disease prevention.

Esselstyn, a former health educator, has spent most of her life advocating for a plant-based, whole-food diet. A collection of her recipes is featured in The Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cookbook, which she co-authored with her mother, Ann.

The event is part of the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute Women’s Heart Health Program’s “Feeding Your Heart and Soul” initiative. Dr. Gretchen Wells, the program director, is an enthusiastic voice in the campaign to reduce the incidence of heart disease in Kentucky.

Numerous studies have linked a plant-based diet to lower risks of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease – as much as 30 percent, according to one Harvard study, Wells said. Plant-based doesn’t mean vegetarian, however: Smaller amounts of lean meats such as chicken or fish are OK.

“One of our missions at the Gill is to educate Kentuckians about lifestyle and encourage them to make changes that reduce their risk for heart disease,” Wells said. “Jane can provide them the tools to live healthier lives, so bringing her to Lexington was a logical fit.”

The event takes place in the UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital Pavilion A Auditorium and will kick off at 8 a.m. with an optional free yoga session. Esselstyn will take the stage for a brief lecture at 9 a.m., followed by a cooking demonstration at 10 a.m. and tastings at 11 a.m.

Some of the recipes Esselstyn will be demonstrating include: kale bruschetta, corn muffins with jalapenos and salsa, chocolate-raspberry mango parfait, smoky little devils (a healthy take on deviled eggs), and several salad dressings. Samples of most recipes will be available for tasting following the demonstration.

The $15 registration fee includes the tastings and a copy of her Esselstyn’s cookbook.

Registration ends Nov. 10 and is limited to the first 125 people. Free parking is available in the UK HealthCare parking garage at 110 Transcript Ave., directly across South Limestone from Chandler Hospital.

To register, contact Karen Michul at Karen.Michul@uky.edu or call 859-218-0121.


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DASH diet

The DASH diet is easy to follow and good for your health

Do you want to eat better, but don’t know where to start? Consider the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH diet.

The DASH diet was initially created to help lower blood pressure. But studies have also found the DASH diet to be one of the best options to prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even some forms of cancer. Research also shows the DASH plan is safe and effective for short-term and permanent weight loss.

The best news is the DASH diet is easy to follow because it does not restrict entire food groups. Because the plan focuses on fresh fruits and veggies, controlling your calories is easier, too. Learn more about the DASH diet below.

What is the DASH diet?

The DASH plan is promoted by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. The plan helps reduce the risk for serious health problems because it is low in:

  • Saturated fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Total fat
  • Red meat
  • Sweets
  • Sugary beverages

The DASH diet encourages:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk and dairy products
  • Whole-grain foods
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Nuts

The DASH diet is also rich in important nutrients such as:

  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Protein
  • Fiber

Tips for following the DASH diet

To reduce the amount of sodium in your diet, try these steps:

  • Choose fresh, frozen or canned vegetables that have low sodium or no added salt.
  • Use fresh poultry, fish or meat instead of canned, smoked or processed options.
  • Limit cured foods such as bacon and ham, foods packed in brine, and condiments.
  • Cook rice or pasta without salt.
  • Cut back on frozen dinners, packaged mixes, and canned soups or broths.
  • Rinse canned foods such as tuna and canned beans to remove some of the salt.
  • Use spices instead of salt to flavor foods.
  • Add fruit to breakfast or have it as a snack.
  • Treat meat as one part of the whole meal, instead of the main focus.

Some days you might eat more sodium or fewer foods from one group than the plan suggests. But don’t worry. Try your best to keep the average on most days close to the DASH plan levels.

Following the DASH diet

Here’s how much of each food group you should eat every day, based on eating 2,000 calories per day.

6-8 servings of whole grains. A serving size is about one slice of bread, 1 ounce of dry cereal or 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta.

4-5 servings of vegetables. A serving size is about 1 cup of raw, leafy vegetable or a 1/2 cup of cut-up raw or cooked vegetables.

4-5 servings of fruits. A serving size is about one medium fruit; 1/4 cup of dried fruit; 1/2 cup of fresh, frozen or canned fruit; or 1/2 cup of real fruit juice.

2-3 servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy. A serving size is about 1 cup of milk or yogurt or 1 1/2 ounces of cheese.

Up to 6 servings of lean meat, poultry, fish. A serving size is about 1 ounce of cooked meat, poultry, or fish, or one egg.

4-5 servings per week of nuts, seeds, legumes: A serving size is about 1/3 cup or 1 1/2 ounces of nuts, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, 2 tablespoons or 1/2 ounce of seeds, 1/2 cup of cooked, dry beans or peas.

2-3 servings of fats and oils: A serving size is about 1 teaspoon of soft margarine, 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon of  mayonnaise or 2 tablespoons of salad dressing.

Up to 5 servings per week of sweets: A serving size is about 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 tablespoon of jelly or jam, 1/2 cup of sorbet or gelatin or 1 cup of lemonade.


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coconut oil

Check out these healthy alternatives (really!) for coconut oil

If you’ve been cooking with coconut oil with the idea it’s healthy, you’re not the only one. Cooking blogs, specialty food stores and many health-conscious eaters have embraced coconut oil as a healthy alternative to other cooking fats, such as butter.

Unfortunately, that healthy reputation may have been too good to be true. According to a recent American Heart Association advisory, coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat – the type of fat you want to avoid in large quantities. Studies show saturated fat can raise your LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, as much as butter, beef fat or palm oil. Canola oil, on the other hand, has only 7 percent saturated fat, and might be a healthier option for cooking.

All fats and oils have varying levels of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol, which can cause atherosclerosis, a condition marked by the hardening and clogging of arteries that can lead to heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases.

Replacing saturated fat with the healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat in the diet lowers cardiovascular disease risk as much as cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, according to the advisory.

So, which oils should you be using in your kitchen? Here’s what the AHA recommends:

Healthier cooking oils

  • Canola oil
  • Corn oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Olive oil

Cooking oils and fats to avoid or limit

  • Butter
  • Lard
  • Beef tallow
  • Palm oil
  • Palm kernel oil
  • Coconut oil

The AHA recommends that saturated fat should make up less than 10 percent of daily calories for healthy Americans and no more than 6 percent for those who need lower cholesterol.


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screen time

Is too much screen time affecting your health?

If you’re feeling overly stressed or unproductive, it might be a sign that you’re spending too much time staring at your smartphone.

That’s not surprising. In fact, data from a 2016 Nielsen study shows the average American spends almost 11 hours in front of screens each day. All that exposure to technology takes a toll on our overall health.

A growing body of research suggests that time staring at a screen can lead to health issues such as obesity, depression, anxiety, blurred vision and lack of productivity. Although it’s hard for all of us to go more than a few hours without technology, there are benefits to putting down your smartphone and enjoying the digital-free life.

These benefits include:

  • Reduced stress.
  • Healthier sleep habits.
  • Improved mental and physical health.
  • Boosts in productivity and creativity.

Here are some tips to limit screen time:

  • Use a device other than your smartphone as an alarm.
  • Charge your phone and other electronics outside of your bedroom.
  • Avoid checking emails after work.
  • Limit phone use an hour before going to bed.
  • Spend only 30-40 minutes on non-work-related devices each day.
  • Eat dinner at a table instead of in front of the TV.
  • Use the 20/20/20 rule to keep your eyes healthy. For every 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, look at an object 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds to help reduce strain on your eyes while at work.
  • Get moving. Aim for 30 minutes of brisk activity five days a week. A bike ride or walk with friends gets you away from your smartphone and works wonders for your overall health, too.

Sources: National Institutes of Health, The Vision Council


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Chefs in Action

Chefs In Action teaches healthy cooking techniques

When UK HealthCare opened its state-of-the-art dining facility, Chandler Dining, last year, it embraced the concept that food service should be as involved in teaching healthy habits as medical and nursing staff.

The long lines of institutional steamers and shelving to slide plastic trays along were gone, replaced instead with cooking hubs where diners can choose nutritious, freshly prepared food ingredients and have their dish prepared to order before their eyes.

The new facility, which is open to patients, families, staff and the public, offers restaurant-quality food selections that you wouldn’t expect to see in a hospital cafeteria.

Perhaps less expected was a teaching kitchen where chefs can demonstrate healthy meal preparations. UK HealthCare Executive Chef Pete Combs was tasked with creating a platform for sharing with hospital patients, visitors and staff the tips and techniques that make food more nutritious. The result? A monthly series called Chefs in Action.

“Chefs in Action is designed to help people see that it’s not difficult to cook healthy dishes with high-quality ingredients,” said Combs, a food service industry veteran of more than 30 years. “The power of food [in improving health] is huge.”

At 4 p.m. on the third Thursday of every month, Combs and sous chefs Justin Clark and Sarah Null prepare a themed menu with an extra dash of theater and humor. At the February event, the Heart Month-themed menu included:

  • Flaxseed hummus with almond crackers, jicama, rainbow peppers and carrot.
  • Three-bean salsa with avocado, tomato and cucumber chips.
  • Roasted butternut squash boat with asparagus, ginger, almond and wild mushrooms.
  • Rainbow trout stuffed with Fuji apples, walnuts, spinach and raisins with orange saffron sauce.
  • Raspberry banana and dark chocolate bites.

As they demonstrated each recipe and distributed free samples to the audience, dietitians Andrea Francis, Jill Haeberlin and Katie Lewis listed the ingredients in each dish and explained how they boosted heart health.

“Sharing nutrition information is as important as showing people how to make the recipe,” Combs said. “People may not want to make the apple-walnut stuffing, but they might add walnuts to one of their favorite dishes once they learn that walnuts can reduce cardiovascular problems and Type 2 diabetes.”

Housley says the long-term goal for Chefs in Action is to make the demos available to patients via the Get Well Network, an in-room patient engagement system that helps improve the transition of care from hospital to home.

“UK HealthCare is not just about medicine,” said J.J. Housley, UK HealthCare’s director of enterprise operations. “This enterprise strives to provide Kentuckians with the tools for healthy living, and why wouldn’t our food service be a significant player in that effort?”

The next Chefs in Action will be at 4 p.m., this Thursday, April 20.  The menu will center on healthy twists to Kentucky’s classic dishes. No reservations are necessary and the event is free. Check out the video below to learn more about Chefs in Action.


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Nutrition and athletic performance

Fuel your body like an athlete

Dr. Kimberly Kaiser

With spring fast approaching, many people will begin running races, playing tennis, hiking and enjoying other outdoor activities. It can be difficult to navigate the plethora of information on eating to improve athletic performance, but it is possible to make adjustments that work for you.

We sat down with Dr. Kimberly Kaiser, a doctor at UK Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine and UK Family & Community Medicine, to get the answers to some frequently asked questions about nutrition and athletic performance.

Should I eat before I exercise?

Your body needs energy in the form of calories to maintain exercise. However, too much food or the wrong food can cause gastrointestinal issues especially in endurance athletes.

As a general rule, the closer you are to a workout, the simpler the meal should be. If you eat two to three hours before exercise, food will have time to digest and be absorbed from the GI tract into the blood. A good pre-workout meal contains both complex and simple carbs, such as whole wheat toast with a banana or a smoothie made with Greek yogurt, granola and fruit.

What should I eat to help my body recover after exercise?

Dietary proteins are effective for the maintenance and repair of skeletal muscle proteins. They also serve as a source of energy in conjunction with carbs and fats. Eating whole foods high in protein like beef, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, eggs or dairy are better in general than supplementing. Typically, a well-balanced diet will eliminate the need to ingest extra protein.

Will fat help or hurt my performance?

Fat is a necessary fuel for endurance exercise along with carbohydrates. Your carbohydrate stores are depleted within one to two hours of strenuous exercise, so your body then uses fat as energy. Fats are also necessary to help absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

Try to limit your how much saturated fat you consume. Eating too much can increase your risk for heart disease.

Do I need to take vitamins to perform better?

Eating whole foods whenever possible is ideal. A food diary can help identify if there are deficiencies in your normal diet that can then be supplemented under the direction of a physician and/or sports dietician. In general, taking a daily multivitamin is a safe way to ensure you are meeting vitamin and mineral needs. It’s important to remember that supplements are not regulated by the FDA; thus, most claims are not backed by scientific studies, and purity is not guaranteed.

We aren’t all destined for the Olympics, but many of us set our own athletic goals that we hope to achieve. By eating well, food can help you achieve those goals and make you feel like you won the gold!


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Kick-start your heart health with these nutrition tips

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Kentucky and the nation, accounting for one in every four deaths. Fortunately, there are many things you can do reduce your chances of getting heart disease, starting with a heart-healthy diet.

Foods to eat

To help limit your risk for heart disease and stroke, eat these types of food:

  • Fruits and vegetables. Try to make fruits and veggies at least half of each meal.
  • Whole grains. At least half of your grains should be whole grains. Look for these ingredients: whole wheat, whole oats, oatmeal, whole-grain corn, brown rice, wild rice, whole rye, whole-grain barley, buckwheat, bulgur, millet and sorghum.
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy products. These include milk, calcium-fortified soy drinks (soy milk), cheese, yogurt and other milk products.
  • Seafood, skinless poultry, lean meats, beans, eggs and unsalted nuts.

Foods to avoid

Avoid the following ingredients to improve your heart health:

  • Saturated fats. Saturated fat is usually in pizza, ice cream, fried foods, many cakes and cookies, bacon, and hamburgers. Less than 10 percent of your daily calories should be from saturated fats.
  • Trans fats. These are found mainly in commercially prepared baked goods, snack foods, fried foods and margarine. Choose foods with zero trans fat.
  • Cholesterol. Cholesterol is found in foods made from animals, such as bacon, whole milk, cheese made from whole milk, ice cream, full-fat frozen yogurt and eggs. Fruits and vegetables do not contain cholesterol. Eggs are a major source of dietary cholesterol for Americans, but studies show that eating one egg a day does not increase the risk for heart disease in healthy people. You should eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day.
  • Sodium. Sodium is found in salt, but most of the sodium we eat does not come from salt we add while cooking or at the table. Most of our sodium comes from breads and rolls, cold cuts, pizza, hot dogs, cheese, pasta dishes and condiments (like ketchup and mustard). Limit your daily sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (equal to a teaspoon), unless your doctor recommends something else.
  • Added sugars. Foods like fruit and dairy products naturally contain sugar. But you should limit foods that contain added sugars. These include sodas, sports drinks, cake, candy and ice cream.

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Read some tips for buying healthier foods to reduce fat, sugar and salt, which are associated with a higher risk for obesity, heart attack and diabetes.

Want to eat better? Grocery shop like a cardiologist.

Susan Smyth, MD, PhD

Susan Smyth, MD, PhD

Written by Susan Smyth, MD, PhD, the medical director of the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute.

Many of us vowed to eat healthier foods in the new year but don’t know how to begin. Here are some tips for healthy grocery shopping that’ll help you reduce the amount of dietary fat, sugar and salt in your diet, which can help prevent obesity, heart attack, diabetes and other diseases.

Start in the produce section

Make your meal healthier by substituting foods with lots of color from natural sources (not artificial colors) for foods that are white or brown. Start in the produce section with fresh fruits and veggies, which are high in vitamins and fiber and low in fat. Be sure to check labels on processed foods like guacamole or prepared salads with dressing; they may contain high amounts of fat, sodium and/or sugar.

Tips for dairy and deli

In the dairy section, stick with low-fat options where possible. Beware of flavored yogurts, which can contain as much as half of the recommended daily allowance of sugar. Recent research indicates that eggs are fine in moderation, but check with your doctor first.

At the butcher shop, lean meats like chicken and fish are the healthiest options. Processed meats, like lunch meat or hot dogs, contain high amounts of sodium.

Choose wisely in the bakery

The bakery department can be tricky. While breads and other baked goods can have a place at your dinner table, the hidden sugars and sodium in bread might surprise you. Just two slices of packaged white sandwich bread may account for as much as a quarter of your recommended daily sodium intake. Instead, select breads made from whole grains, which can lower your LDL (bad cholesterol) and decrease the risk of diabetes by almost a third.

Spend less time in the interior aisles

The interior aisles of the grocery store are treacherous. Almost everything in a plastic wrapper is highly processed and loaded with fat, salt, sugar or all three. If you spend a lot of time in the middle aisles, do a lot of label-reading and look for healthier substitutes. Plain canned beans in water are a good choice, as are some nuts and dried fruit. Also, be aware of serving sizes per package: for example, canned soups are sometimes advertised as low sodium – but if the serving size is half a can, and you’re accustomed to eating a full can of soup, you’ll be getting double the dose of sodium.

Consider frozen options

In the frozen food aisle, frozen veggies without added sauces and fruits without added sugar can substitute for fresh varieties. Choose low-fat ice cream over regular versions. And be very careful of frozen pizzas, dinners and snacks, which can be loaded with sodium.

Perhaps the easiest way to eat better is to make a grocery list that emphasizes naturally colorful foods – the more vegetables, the better — and stick to it.


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