We learn our phone numbers by first grade and our social security numbers when we're filling out college applications. We've memorized our password numbers to unlock our phones, and we even know the numbers representing our favorite sports players' stats. Yet many of us don't know the numbers that could save our lives.
Perhaps the most important aspect of owning your health is knowing your numbers, especially in an emergency situation. You may not always have the same health care provider, but you will most definitely have the same body. If a laboratory test comes back in the normal range, but the results are abnormal for you, the test may go unnoticed by a doctor who sees a high number of patients each day. It's up to you to compare your past and present numbers on your own behalf. You should always save copies of your test results so you can keep detailed files about your state of health.
Here's the 411 on numbers you need to know:
1. Blood pressure: a measure of heart and artery health.
Goal: Less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury.
It's composed of two numbers: the top number (systolic pressure) depicts the force of blood pumped out of your heart to the rest of your body, and the bottom number (diastolic pressure) refers to the pressure in your arteries as blood returns to your heart.
The higher your pressure, the harder your heart works to push blood through your body. It's even more difficult when your arteries are filled with plaque.
Why it's important: High blood pressure is often symptomless, yet 1 in 3 American adults suffers from it. Heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease and heart failure can all result from high blood pressure that goes unchecked.
What to do about it: Keep consistent readings of your blood pressure, and make sure the test is done while you're relaxed. See your doctor if your levels are above normal. Studies have shown that diets high in vegetables and whole grains and low in meat can reduce blood pressure. Keep an eye on your bathroom scale because control of your weight can also help control these numbers.
2. Cholesterol: a waxy substance composed of several different types of fat in your blood.
Goal: LDL cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/DL; HDL cholesterol should be more than 40 mg/dL.
It's often categorized as "bad" and "good," because "bad" (LDL) cholesterol deposits fat in your arteries, and "good" (HDL) prevents this plaque build up.
Why it's important: Too much cholesterol raises your risk of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and stroke.
What to do about it: It's not just about the foods you stay away from – it's also the foods you add to your diet. Choices like calamari, fatty meats and liver may need to take a hike. Become a food label detective and try to limit saturated fat as well as cholesterol. Boost your daily intake of heart-healthy foods like almonds, fatty fish (which supply omega 3 fatty acids) and soluble fibers, such as beans and oatmeal.
[Read: Best Heart-Healthy Diets.]
3. Fasting blood sugar and hemoglobin A1c: measures of how well your body processes sugar, used as screening tests for diabetes.
Fasting blood sugar goal: 80 to 100 mg/dL.
Hemoglobin A1c goal: below 5.6 percent for non-diabetics.
Why it's important: Seven million Americans have prediabetes and don't even know it. Blood sugar measurements of 100 to 126 mg/dL are considered prediabetic, while values greater than 126 mg/dL are indicative of diabetes. Your hemoglobin A1c (glycosylated hemoglobin) illustrates a summary of your blood sugar over the past 2 to 3 months. If you have diabetes, this number is a must-know because it represents how well your disease is controlled and your relative risk of complications.
What to do about it: If your fasting blood sugar levels start rising, it's time to take action. Prediabetes can be stalled, and the conversion to full-fledged diabetes reversed, if you commit to your health. If you're overweight, ditching a few pounds may be the quickest route to getting your blood sugar levels into the normal range. Even a 5 percent weight drop can bring dramatic results. Count your carb intake and be sure you couple grains with lean protein and healthy fats. The goal is not to eliminate any foods groups; rather, it's achieving balance between them.
[Read: Best Diabetes Diets.]
4. Waist-to-Hip Ratio: the ratio of your waist circumference relative to your hip circumference. It's often used to describe people as "apple" or "pear" shaped, based on fat distribution.
Goal: 0.80 or below for females; 0.95 or below for males.
Why it's important: Although studies have found contrasting results, many experts believe that having a ring around your middle (an "apple" shape) boosts your risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and even certain cancers. Regardless of where you carry excess weight, lugging around more than your body can handle can be detrimental for your bones, joints and internal organs.
What to do about it: Genetics determine your body's shape, but if you're overweight, weight loss will reduce your risk of disease. Jump-start this process by focusing on proper portion sizes. Hit the gym to boost results, or choose an exercise that you enjoy and that you'll realistically do regularly.
You might be surprised that I didn't mention keeping tabs on your heart rate, BMI or even body weight. That's because it's not crucial for everyone to know these numbers. As a nutritionist, I've seen thousands of patients battling with their scales, impacting their moods and daily activities. To determine whether you should be weighing yourself, read more here.
Next time you're at the doctor, be sure to ask about checking these four critical numbers. Observing how they change over time could make the difference between whether you'll prevent disease or need to treat it. In the meantime – this is advice you can count on!
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Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.