Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, as well as a major cause of disability. The term “heart disease” refers to several types of heart conditions; in the U.S., the most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease. In this condition, plaque builds up in the arteries, causing arterial narrowing or blockages that restrict blood flow and increase the risk of heart attacks.
Some types of heart disease are considered “silent.” This means they often aren’t diagnosed until an individual has symptoms of a heart attack, arrhythmia, or heart failure. There are many risk factors for heart disease. Although some of them are unavoidable due to age or genetics, many of the risk factors can be controlled through diet and healthy lifestyle changes.
Heart Disease Risk Factors
Risk factors that are beyond control:
- Age. The risk of heart disease increases with age. Men who are 45 or older and women age 55 and older have a greater risk of developing the disease.
- Sex. Although estrogen offers some protection against heart disease in younger women, this protection wanes after menopause. Women tend to experience vaguer heart disease symptoms than men, which can allow the disease to go undiagnosed for longer.
- Race or ethnicity. Certain ethnic or racial groups have a higher risk of heart disease than others.
- Family history. The risk of heart disease goes up if a close family member has it.
Risk factors that can be controlled:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- Being overweight or obese
- An unhealthy diet
- Physical inactivity
- Excessive alcohol consumption
Steps You Can Take to Reduce Your Risk
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease and offset unavoidable risk factors:
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are low-calorie, nutrient-dense, and rich in dietary fiber—many of them are also high in antioxidants, which may help protect against heart disease. Another benefit of eating more plant foods is that they can help you cut back on higher-calorie foods that can contribute to weight gain.
Here are some easy ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet:
- Keep washed, cut vegetables in your refrigerator and a bowl of fruit on the counter for quick, convenient snacks
- Focus on choosing recipes that heavily feature fruits and vegetables as the main ingredients, like salads or stir fry
- Replace pasta with sautéed spiralized vegetables, like zucchini, crookneck squash, or carrots
- Swap ice cream or other sugary desserts for frozen fruit dipped in a small amount of dark chocolate
You should aim to eat seven to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Keep in mind that not all fruits and vegetables are equal; avoid vegetables in creamy sauces, fried or breaded vegetables, canned fruits in heavy syrup, and frozen fruit with added sugar. Instead, make sure you’re eating a wide variety of colorful fresh produce, which will help you receive a diverse intake of nutrients.
Choose whole grains
Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber and other essential nutrients that help to regulate blood pressure and heart health. One simple way to add more to your diet is to substitute whole grains for refined grain products. Choose whole wheat flour products (preferably 100% whole wheat) and whole grains like brown rice, barley, and farro. Avoid white bread and other foods that use white flour, like muffins, frozen waffles, doughnuts, cakes, and egg noodles.
Get plenty of fiber
Dietary fiber can help reduce cholesterol, control blood sugar, promote regularity, prevent gastrointestinal disease, and aid weight management. Fiber is primarily found in foods like whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and beans. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber, which helps lower LDL cholesterol, comes from foods like oats, barley, legumes, apples, pears, and flaxseed.
Insoluble fiber is also referred to as “roughage.” It helps with regularity, weight regulation, and intestinal disorders. Some good sources of insoluble fiber include whole wheat, whole grain cereals and bread, nuts, and vegetables. A healthy diet should aim for a total intake of 25 or more grams of dietary fiber (soluble and insoluble) daily.
Limit foods with unhealthy fats
Fat is an important part of a balanced diet, but some types of fat are unhealthy, like saturated and trans fats. These fats contribute to high cholesterol, which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends avoiding trans fats altogether and keeping your consumption of saturated fat to less than 6% of your total daily calories. For example, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, you would want to keep your saturated fat limited to 11-13 grams.
Some simple ways to cut saturated and trans fats from your diet include:
- Choose lean meats with less than 10% fat
- Trim the fat off your meat
- Limit fats like butter, lard, bacon fat, creamy sauces, gravy, nondairy creamers, coconut and palm oils, and hydrogenated margarine
- Substitute low-fat products for full-fat products
- Check food labels, especially on highly processed foods. Many of these are low in nutritional value and can contain trans fats, which are often listed as partially hydrogenated oil
- Choose healthy sources of fat, like olive oil, vegetable and nut oils, nuts, seeds, and avocados
- Use ground flaxseed, which is high in fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids (which can help lower blood fats called triglycerides). Ground flaxseed can be added to smoothies, yogurt, and oatmeal
Choose low-fat proteins
When selecting protein, choose lean meat, fish, skinless poultry, low-fat dairy products, and eggs. Fish, in particular, is an excellent alternative to high-fat meats. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. Other good sources of Omega-3s are walnuts, soybeans, and canola oil. Beans, peas, and lentils are also healthy, low-fat protein sources that don’t contain any cholesterol. They’re rich in dietary fiber can easily be used in place of meat in recipes.
Some proteins to limit or avoid include full-fat dairy products, organ meats (especially liver), spareribs, hot dogs and sausages, bacon, fatty and marbled meats, and fried or breaded meat.
Reduce your sodium intake
A high sodium diet can lead to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends healthy adults limit their salt intake to no more than 2,300 mg a day, which is equivalent to about a teaspoon of salt. Ideally, you should aim to eat no more than 1,500 mg daily.
One way to reduce your salt intake is to limit foods that are canned or processed. These often contain high levels of sodium, so switching to whole fresh foods is a much healthier option. When cooking, add less salt and rely on spices and herbs to flavor your meals. If you enjoy the convenience of canned soups and other processed foods, make sure to read the nutrition label.
Some foods may say they’re lower in sodium because they use sea salt, but this isn’t the case, as sea salt has the same nutritional value as regular table salt. Condiments can also contain high amounts of salt, so make sure to choose reduced-sodium versions and salt substitutes.
Limit sweets and sugary beverages
Although you don’t have to cut them out of your diet completely, you should limit sweets and sugary beverages. It’s fine to treat yourself every once in a while, but try to limit these to a couple of times a month, at most.
Control your portion sizes
Eating a healthy diet is important, but it’s just as important to pay attention to how much you’re eating. When people overload their plates, they tend to overeat and take in more calories than they should. This is especially common when eating at restaurants, where the portion sizes are typically more than anyone needs for a single meal. By controlling your portion sizes, you’re protecting your heart, as well as your waistline.
Here are some simple tips on how to control your portions:
- Use small bowls and plates for meals
- Focus on eating low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables
- Limit high-calorie, high-sodium foods, like fast food or highly processed foods
Besides paying attention to how much you eat, you should also keep track of how many servings you’re eating. Keep in mind that serving sizes are a specific measurement of food. One serving of chicken or fish, for example, is about 2-3 ounces. Depending on the specific diet you’re following, the serving sizes for each food group may vary. Although it’s possible to judge serving sizes based on the size and type of food, it’s best to use a food scale or measuring cups to ensure your serving sizes are accurate.
Don’t skip meals
It might be tempting to skip meals if you’re trying to lose weight, but small, frequent meals are more beneficial for weight loss. Skipping meals can lead to overeating, and it’s been shown to lower the metabolism and cause nutrient deprivations. Research has also found that those who balance their calories into four to six meals a day have lower cholesterol levels than those who eat fewer meals.
Drink alcohol in moderation
Too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and contribute to weight gain. If you drink alcohol, make sure to drink in moderation. For women, this means no more than one drink a day; men should have no more than two drinks a day.
Smoking raises blood pressure and puts you at a higher risk of heart attacks and stroke. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, quitting will help lower your risk for heart disease.
Maintain a healthy body weight
A healthy body weight reduces the chances of heart disease, as well as other health conditions (and risk factors) like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. A body mass index (BMI) of 18-24.9 is considered ideal. If you’re overweight or obese, losing just 5-10% of your body weight can significantly benefit your heart health.
Get regular exercise
Along with a healthy diet, exercise has many benefits to improve your heart health, including strengthening your heart, improving circulation, maintaining a healthy weight, and lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. Try to aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day.
Get enough sleep
Research has shown that those who don’t get enough sleep are at greater risk of developing high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes—all of which can lead to heart disease. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night, so make sure you have good sleep habits that allow you to get the sleep you need. If you have frequent problems sleeping, be sure to talk to your health care provider.
Stress can raise blood pressure and, in some cases, may even trigger a heart attack. Some methods for coping with stress (like overeating, heavy drinking, or smoking) can also increase your heart disease risk. Make sure you have some healthy ways to cope with periods of stress, like listening to soothing music, meditating, or other calming activities.
Keep Your Heart Healthy with Medical Weight Loss
As you may have noticed, many of the risk factors for heart disease are interconnected. By following these tips, you can reduce your risk for heart disease and health conditions like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Lifestyle change is the key to losing weight, developing better habits, and improving your overall health.
If you’d like to reduce your risk of heart disease but aren’t sure where to start, contact Dr. Jennifer Hubert for more information on her medical weight loss program. Dr. Hubert’s program has helped numerous patients with heart disease improve their heart health by using proven strategies like medical monitoring, behavior modification, and nutritional counseling. Schedule a consultation today by calling (707) 575-THIN (8446).