In honor of American Heart Month, here are some things to think about when it comes to preventing the disease that kills the most Americans each year.
1) Diet can trump genetics: For some, genes may play a large role in the risk of developing heart disease. However, even if you were born with a greater risk of heart disease, recent research shows that how you eat can lower that risk by altering the way certain DNA variations that promote heart disease behave. One study published in the journal Plos Medicine showed that eating more raw fruits and veggies actually helped reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease typically conferred by one DNA variation that increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. Here are a few tips to add more raw fruits and veggies into your daily routine: Have at least one serving of fruit with your breakfast and one with a snack. For instance, add berries to your morning cereal, or have a fruit and yogurt smoothie for breakfast, and then nosh an apple or pear with peanut butter for a snack. You can even make your own trail mix using dried fruit and nuts for a snack. Add more veggies by blending spinach, kale, or shredded carrots into a fruit smoothie (you’ll never know it’s there!), and snack on raw carrots, cucumber slices, or bell peppers dipped in hummus or a yogurt based dip.
2) Refined carbohydrates and sugars aren’t so sweet to your heart: Many studies suggest that diets high in sugar (hello soda habit) and refined carbohydrates (white bread and foods made from white flour) contribute just as much harm, if not more, to your risk of heart disease as some of the more widely thought of culprits like saturated fats, trans fats, and dietary cholesterol. Diabetes and obesity are independent risk factors for heart disease, and eating too many carbs and added sugars on a regular basis can increase your risk of both these diseases. However, refined carbohydrates have been shown to elevate your triglycerides as well, and this can increase your risk of heart disease on its own. Protect your ticker and aim to kick a soda habit (if you have one), and swap more whole grains and starchy veggies (quinoa, barley, oats, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, sweet potatoes, winter squash, etc.) in place of refined carbohydrates like white bread products, white rice, and white pasta.
3) Don’t eat a NO FAT diet: Many people think that a heart healthy diet is one that cuts out most fats. The truth is, you need some fat (even saturated fat) in your diet in order to help maintain healthy heart and blood vessel function. As for many of those low-fat or fat-free products? They replace the fat with sugar! In fact, the American Heart Association recommends getting between 25 – 35 percent of your total daily calories from fats. That’s a range of 55 to 77 grams of fat per day if you’re eating a 2000 calorie a day diet. The key is getting most of your fats from healthy plant-based sources such as vegetable oils (olive oil, canola oil, sesame oil) nuts, seeds, avocados, and nut butters. In addition to plant sources, eating fatty fish like tuna, salmon, sardines, and herring is also an important place to get healthy fats called omega 3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends aiming for at least 2 servings of fatty fish per week, in addition to plant sources of omega 3s like walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds. These fats may have a significant impact on lowering your risk of heart disease, including lowering your triglycerides (fats in your blood that can cause plaque build-up.)
4) You may need to eat even less saturated fat: In 2013 the American Heart Association (AHA) released new guidelines surrounding its recommendations on preventing heart disease. One of the new recommendations encourages people with high cholesterol to lower the amount of saturated fat in their diets to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories (this is lower than the previous recommendation of 7 percent.) For someone eating 2,000 calories a day – the average of what an adult eats each day – that’s about 13 grams of saturated fat. If your cholesterol is normal, you should still be shooting to get no more than 7 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat. You’ll find saturated fat predominantly as fats found in animal foods, including fatty cuts of meat such as beef, pork, and chicken/turkey with the skin. Full fat dairy products like butter, cream, cheese, and full fat milk are also high sources of saturated fat.
5) Most of your sodium intake doesn’t come from the salt shaker: You probably already know that too much salt isn’t so great for your heart — eating more than you should can lead to high blood pressure and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. According to the mayo clinic, the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium each day, over 2 times the recommended amount (1500 mg/day) for people who already have high blood pressure. If you don’t have high blood pressure, aim to get 2,300 mg / day. The salt you consume may be working its way into your diet in unsuspecting ways. In general, processed foods and restaurant meals are the leading contributors of sodium in your diet — not the salt you add after your veggies are cooked. For instance, bread products are one of the sneakiest sodium culprits. Just one slice of bread can have up to 230 mg of sodium. Larger rolls, bagels, and tortillas can have about 400 mg. Use two slices of bread or a hoagie roll for a sandwich and you’re about 1/3 of the way to your sodium limit for the day. That’s not even factoring in the meat or cheese you’ve added, which are two more high sodium foods. Other sneaky sodium culprits are soups, frozen meals, and frozen pizzas, which can have over half of your daily sodium limit in one small serving. How can you avoid all this sodium? Make more meals at home and use the following criteria we’ve developed for SELF magazine’s Healthy Food Awards when shopping for the healthiest packaged foods: http://www.self.com/fooddiet/2013/06/healthy-food-awards-criteria
6) All alcohol (not just red wine) may help your heart: While it may be red wine that you hear about most often, recent studies suggest that moderate alcohol intake of any kind (from wine, beer, or spirits) may offer the same protective effect. A report from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study of more than 38,000 men found that moderate drinkers (men who had one drink every day) were 30 to 35 percent less likely to have a heart attack than non-drinkers. This reduction was observed among men who drank wine, beer, or spirits either with meals or outside of meal time. Keep in mind that moderation is key. One serving of alcohol equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. And since alcohol contributes extra calories, it’s something to factor into your daily plan. Plus, a recent study found that frequent binge drinking (defined as drinking 5 or more drinks at one sitting, 6 times per month) can lead to vascular changes that can put you at risk for heart attack and stroke, even in young adulthood. We typically don’t recommend adding alcohol to improve your risk of heart disease if you don’t already drink or if you’re currently trying to lose weight.
What are you doing to lower your risk of heart disease?