Cardiovascular disease (CVD), simply known as heart disease, is the leading killer of both men and women in the U.S. and generates more than $3 billion annually in healthcare costs (Go and Mozaffarian, 2014). Fortunately, most contributing risk factors can be easily addressed to avoid consequent health issues. We can decrease our chances of developing CVD by improving our diet, staying active and maintaining a healthy weight.
A diet usually involves deprivation and/or elimination of entire categories of food, so it’s best to ditch the diet notion and instead opt for less dramatic changes over time for a more effective way to approach eating habits. This slow transformation gives you an opportunity to naturally adopt changes into your lifestyle so that they are easier to maintain long term. Begin with increasing awareness of the current foods you are consuming.
There are numerous dietary-tracking apps available to help you analyze what you eat. Below is a list of the most common ones:
The USDA also provides a website for ChooseMyPlate, a program that assists in making healthier choices while keeping “portions in proportion” within the various food groups for balanced nutrition. There are also nutrients that are of particular concern when it comes to heart-heathy eating.
Not all fat is created equal. Saturated fat, which is found mostly in animal products, can contribute to LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels in our blood. High LDL cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease (National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, 2005). Aim for no more than 10 percent of total calories from this type of fat. Trans fats are another concern, as they also tend to raise LDL levels; they also lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. Trans fats are typically found in processed foods such as cakes, cookies and crackers in the form of partially hydrogenated oils. Instead aim for healthier unsaturated oils typically found in plants. The monounsaturated varieties include olive and canola oil, while the polyunsaturated fats are found in sunflower and corn oil, as well as in foods such as avocado, nuts, seeds and fatty fish like salmon, trout, herring and mackerel.
Fiber is an important nutrient in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Fiber, together with regular exercise, can help lower LDL cholesterol, moderate blood-sugar levels, decrease one’s risk for certain types of cancer and alleviate constipation. Check nutritional labels and choose crackers, cereal, pasta and bread that have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
Excess sodium (salt) can lead to hypertension or high blood pressure—a condition that puts you at greater risk for heart disease, heart attack and stroke (American Heart Association, 2014). The typical American diet contains about 4000 to 5000 mg/day of sodium, which is three times the recommended intake of ~1500 mg/day for most individuals. A majority of the salt in our diets doesn’t come from the shaker, but rather from processed and canned foods and restaurant meals. Learning to recognize and limit higher-sodium sources can go a long way toward improving your health.
Incorporating activity into your daily life is an effective way to lower your cardiovascular risk factors. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends that most adults include at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. Regular physical activity not only helps lower blood pressure it also makes it easier to control weight and regulate blood sugar and hunger levels. Just like dietary modification, making small, simple changes to your lifestyle can be an easy way to incorporate more exercise into your daily routine. Here are some tips to make it happen:
- Identify Your Passion: One of the biggest hurdles for daily exercise is enjoyment. You’re much more likely to incorporate activity into your routine if it’s something you truly like doing.
- Create the Opportunity to Exercise: Find ways to be active. This can mean parking farther from your intended target, taking the long way around a building or using the stairs. Try leaving the car at home for errands that are close by or even plan a fun activity that involves the entire family, such as an outdoor sport or a local hike.
- Prioritize: Health needs often get lost amidst our other daily tasks and responsibilities. Making sure that we place regular physical activity near the top of our “to-do” lists is critical to good health and wellbeing, and sets a good example for our children and other loved ones.
Understanding heart disease risk factors is the first step toward making changes that can help us live a long and healthy life. For more information on American Heart Month and strategies for a healthier lifestyle, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
American Heart Association (2014). Understand Your Risk for High Blood Pressure.
Go, A.S. and Mozaffarian, D, (2014) Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2014 Update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. v129, pp. e28-e292.
National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (2005). High Blood Cholesterol: What You Need To Know.