The First Step You Need to Take to Improve Your Heart Health, According to Experts
Your heart is your body's lifeline, which is why it's of utmost importance that you keep it in as close to stellar condition as you humanly can. Unfortunately, not a lot of Americans seem to be taking such initiative, and it could be because they don't know how or even where to begin.
A recent study discovered that while most Americans understand there is a connection between heart health and weight, only a considerably small fraction actively take steps to improve their heart health. To better understand what individuals can do to improve their chances of avoiding the onset of heart disease, we spoke with registered dietitian at Orlando Health, Gabrielle Mancella, and cardiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Laxmi Mehta, MD.
Before we dive into what these two health experts have to say about keeping your heart in good shape, let's briefly review what was uncovered in the study mentioned above about Americans' knowledge of their heart health.
So, what exactly did this study about heart health find?
The study, which was conducted by the Cleveland Clinic, included 1,002 American adults and was administered online. While an overwhelming 88 percent of participants understood that a link between heart health and a healthy weight exists, only 43 percent said they have tried implementing healthful dietary changes to lose weight. The worst part? Roughly 40 percent of participants that identified as being overweight or obese admitted they aren't cautious about their food choices. Yet, 65 percent of all respondents said they are worried about developing heart disease due to the excess weight they carry.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that one in every four deaths is attributed to it. It's time to hone in on how you can take control of your heart health and ultimately your life.
What's the first step you need to take to improve your heart health?
Mancella says many people assume that in order to achieve optimal heart health, one must follow a restrictive diet, as opposed to adopting healthful lifestyle changes gradually—the true key to bettering your heart health.
"It is important to understand the 'why' and 'how' when choosing foods based on their nutrient density, vitamin, and mineral content, not just focusing on the macronutrients," she explains. Remember, there are four macronutrients the body requires to undergo growth, maintenance, and repair. The four are carbohydrates, fat, protein, and water.
The best first step to having a healthier heart? Adopting a plant-based diet.
"Overall, a plant-based diet is the way to go when trying to prevent heart disease," says Mancella. She says one of the most common changes that occur from aging is increased stiffness of the large arteries in a process called arteriosclerosis."This causes high blood pressure, or hypertension, which becomes more common as we age," she says. It can be detrimental to heart health, as well as another type of arteriosclerosis called atherosclerosis, which is when the arteries harden from the buildup of plaque, or excess cholesterol and fat.
"Plant-based diets offer less saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol," says Mancella. "They provide a significant amount more fiber than other diet regimens of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Dietary fiber can help you improve blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and even type 2 diabetes." Mancella also emphasizes that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and legumes contains less sodium than diets that include meat and dairy, and consuming high levels of sodium regularly can contribute to hypertension.
Mehta agrees that a change in diet is essential to maintaining good heart health. She suggests adopting the Mediterranean diet, which is predominantly plant-based and known to combat heart disease. She recommends becoming more mindful of the quantity of food you eat every day by monitoring your daily caloric intake, too.
"Watch your calorie intake, your body is a bank that should be poor, so don't take in excessive amounts of calories that you are not spending with exercise. Journaling is a good way to keep in check. Keep a diary of what you eat; you can quickly see how a small bite here and there can add up to your daily calorie intake limit," says Mehta.
What foods should people eat in order to best prevent heart disease?
Mancella recommends that you should "eat larger portions of low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and smaller portions of high-calorie, high-sodium foods, such as refined, processed or fast foods." A handful of fruits and vegetables are naturally loaded in soluble fiber, which helps to slow the digestion of food and helps you stay fuller, longer.
"While suppressing your appetite, you are more likely to reduce your calorie intake, which can help you lose weight. Not only are we increasing our consumption of nutrient-dense foods whilst increasing our fiber, but this method can assist us in losing weight nearly effortlessly," she explains.
Other great sources of soluble fiber are found in legumes, flaxseed, and oatmeal, all of which may help lower total blood cholesterol levels by specifically lowering LDL—the harmful kind of cholesterol. "Studies also have shown that high-fiber foods may have other heart-health benefits, such as reducing blood pressure and inflammation," says Mancella. She also suggests swapping out red meat—which is loaded in saturated fat—for fish, particularly wild caught salmon because of its high concentration of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
What foods should people avoid in order to prevent heart disease?
"Limiting how much saturated and trans fats you eat is an important step to reduce your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of coronary artery disease," says Mancella. Cheeseburgers, pastries, and processed foods alike are all harmful to heart health if eaten often. Mancella says you can also avoid consuming such fats by being cognizant of what you cook your fish and vegetables in. Ideally, you'll want to avoid cooking with lard, butter, hydrogenated margarine, and bacon fat.
"High-fat foods can affect cholesterol levels and can increase risks for coronary artery disease, heart attacks, and strokes," says Mehta. Instead, obtain your daily allowance of fat from healthier sources such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.
What other steps can one take to prevent heart disease other than making diet changes?
Mehta says it's important to integrate exercise into your weekly routine.
"Participate in at least 150 minutes per week of moderate, aerobic exercise and incorporate activity in daily life," she says. Opting to take the stairs instead of taking the elevator, or getting up to walk once every hour if you're at a sit-down desk job are good ways you can include a small amount of activity into your day-to-day routine.
"Also, make sure to visit your cardiologist at least annually to go over your numbers (blood pressure, weight/body mass index, measurement of cholesterol/glucose blood levels) and to continue heart medications," advises Mehta. "Definitely quit smoking if you are a current smoker."
Finally, the cardiologist suggests you cut down your alcohol consumption. She recommends limiting consumption to one drink per day for women and one drink a day for men for optimal heart health. It is a pretty important organ after all, so it's time to show it some love.