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20 Worst Habits for Heart Health

Think you're doing everything you can to keep your ticker in tip top shape? Think again.

America's heart is breaking—but you have the power to mend it. Cardiovascular disease accounts for about one in three deaths in the U.S., with over 2,200 Americans dying of cardiovascular disease each day, according to the American Heart Association. Most doctors agree that prevention is the best tool for fighting the condition.

"We have to change the way we think about the causal factors in heart disease," says Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, author of the The Great Cholesterol Myth. "It is not caused by cholesterol. It is not caused by fat … most of what causes disease are the actual habits that we engage in."

Read on to learn how you can change your heart-hurting ways, in this special report from Eat This, Not That! And because good heart health starts with weight loss, don't miss our list of the essential 55 Best Ways to Boost Your Metabolism.


You Think Foods Labeled 'Zero Trans Fats' Are Safe


We know that partially hydrogenated oils are a disaster for your LDL cholesterol levels. Food manufacturers even use "zero trans fats" labels to advertise that their products are free of them—but you can't believe everything you read. "The government allows manufacturers to put on the label 'has zero trans fats' if it contains less than 0.5 grams per serving," explains Barry A. Franklin, PhD, director of cardiac rehabilitation and exercise laboratories at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak. "There's a lot of foods that have 0.41 to 0.49 grams of trans fats per serving. Why? Because they can put zero trans fats on the label. You should have no more than 2 grams of trans fats per day, so it doesn't take very much to [exceed] the daily limit. I tell patients to look at a label. If you see hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated [oils], there's trans fats in there, so stay away from it."


You Skimp on Your Sleep


Those high-functioning people who survive on four hours of sleep per day? Successful though they may be, they're not doing their hearts any good. A lack of seven to eight hours of sleep causes the body stress, leading to conditions ideal for the development of a heart condition.

"People who routinely get four, five, six hours of sleep, have disproportionate incidents of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity," says Dr. Franklin. "We also have evidence that sleep deprivation can lead to low-grade infections and inflammation." Check out these other 30 Secret Reasons You've Gained Weight to see what else could be the culprit.


You Don't Bother To Floss


Believe it or not, there's a link between gum disease and heart disease. When left untreated, "gum disease leads to an inflammatory state in the entire body, thus increasing your chance of heart disease exponentially," says cardiologist Dr. Evelina Grayver, the director of the Coronary Care Unit at Northwell Health's North Shore University Hospital. Constant inflammation can lead to endothelial dysfunction—a state in which blood vessels are expanding and contracting abnormally—which is the first phase of premature coronary artery disease. Grayver says gum disease "can also increase risk of endocarditis—infections within your cardiac valves." The answer? Research shows that adding flossing to your oral care routine can help reduce gum disease.


You're Drinking the Wrong Smoothies

This may be tough to swallow. Fruit juice smoothies, which are low in fiber and high in carbs, spike blood sugar. "When you eat a pear, your blood sugar doesn't really go up because even though it's sweet going down, it takes your body a few hours to disentangle and digest all the sugar from all the fiber in the pear," says Northwestern Medicine cardiac surgeon Dr. Timothy James. "But when you put the pear in the blender and you drink it, all that sugar is available in the solution. It hits your stomach, which has this large surface area and luxuriant blood supply and the sugar just leaps into your bloodstream." That spike in sugar leads to a rise in insulin, which can lead to inflammation in the body. That's harmful, because "the progression of plaques in your arteries seems to be partly dependent on the presence of inflammation and is accelerated by inflammation." Instead, mix your smoothies with plant-based protein, like the fat-melting drinks in Zero Belly Smoothies.


You Avoid Those Healthy Greens


You've been told to eat them over and over again: spinach, swiss chard, and other dark green leafy veggies are important to overall health. But there's one particularly heart-healthy mineral in them that's essential for your heart: magnesium. A lack of magnesium slows down energy metabolism, which can result in palpitations, insomnia, feeling fatigued, headaches and muscle cramps, and ultimately high blood pressure, diabetes, and atherosclerosis, a cardiovascular disease.

"A lot of people don't realize that their bodies are not functioning at optimum levels because they are magnesium deficient," says Dennis Goodman, MD, a cardiologist at NYU's Men's Health Center, is the author of Magnificent Magnesium: Your Essential Key to a Healthy Heart & More. Goodman suggests eating organic dark green leafy veggies (as non-organic greens may be grown in mineral-depleted soil) and to take slow-release magnesium supplements that end in "ate" rather than "ide." "Magnesium hydroxide and oxide tend to be the cheapest but they're also the least effective," Goodman says.


You Rarely Engage in High Impact Exercise


If you haven't been exercising regularly, but suddenly decide to hit the tennis court, you may be in for some trouble, particularly if you're middle-aged or older. "The guy who says 'I haven't played racket ball in 30 years, I'm going to go play with my son-in-law. I'm 60 and he's now 30. Should be a lot of fun,' that's the guy who drops dead on the court because he hasn't played in 20 or 30 years," says Dr. Franklin. Work up to high-intensity sports and activities, like snow shoveling, before diving in full throttle. And to lose fat faster, don't miss these 14 Ways to Lose Your Belly in 14 Days.


You Have More Than One to Two Drinks Per Day


Take it easy on the booze. The American Heart Association recommends consuming (ideally, with meals) no more than one drink per day for women and two per day for men. Any more than that puts your heart at risk. "Excessive alcohol has a negative inotropic effect, which is a fancy term for meaning that it screws up the pumping capacity of the heart transiently," says Dr. Franklin.


You Avoid Even the Good Carbs


Not all carbs are the diet villains they're made out to be. Whole grains are essential for healthy heart function, providing fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese and selenium and "aiding in lowering total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides, as well as helping to stabilize insulin levels and prevent metabolic syndrome and diabetes," says Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum director of women's heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital. The studies back it up. "A meta-analysis of seven major studies concluded that people who ate 2.5 or more servings of whole grains per day are 21 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke, or the need for a procedure to bypass or open a clogged artery) than their counterparts who ate less than two servings of grains per week. " Steinbaum says.


You Don't Get Enough Downtime


Slowing down after work is essential to keeping your life in balance. "When you're overwhelmed, you really can't do those healthy things that everybody wants you to do," says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, Medical Director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU Langone Medical Center. "But also you tend to have higher blood pressure and higher levels of stress hormones that increase blood sugar and belly fat." Create boundaries between your work and leisure time. "You need to leave work and go on to some other activity, whether it's spending time with your family or exercising or eating a meal where you're not eating as quickly as you can," Goldberg says.


You Get Too Much Downtime


The reverse is also true. Too much downtime can lead to depression and overeating. "The majority of people who have a sedentary lifestyle have more of an emotional component to eating," says Dr. Grayver. "They need to feel that satiety, that abdominal fullness, at all times. It's eating out of boredom." Grayver also notes the relationship between a low-activity lifestyle and depression. "When we're active, our body produces the happy hormones, like serotonin. When you're sitting down, the body does not have the opportunity to produce those. That increases your risk for potentially significant amount of mental discomfort, thus further leading to an inflammatory state that leads to significant cardiovascular disease."


You or a Close Relative Smokes


This one's a no-brainer, but keep in mind that even if you don't smoke yourself, habitually taking in second-hand smoke is also harmful. "The bottom line is that lifetime cigarette smoking decreases the lifespan by an average of 10-12 years," says Dr. Franklin. "Breathing in second-hand smoke can trigger acute coronary events. Lots of stories suggest that if a person lives with a smoker… by breathing in the other's person's smoke, there's a 30 percent greater likelihood of developing a cardiac event early."


You Assume Coconut Oil is Your Diet Savior


The internet has provided thousands of uses for coconut oil: It's a coffee creamer, a moisturizer, and even a detoxifying mouthwash. But the latest so-called superfood has a downside: it's high in saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 13 grams of saturated fat per day—the exact amount of saturated fat in one tablespoon of coconut oil. "The oils that people should not use are any of the unhealthy fats–including coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil–all which have potential to be atherogenic," says Kimberly Gomer MS, RD, LDN, the Director of Nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa.


You Let Your Anger Simmer


"People who are angry, hostile or depressed tend to have a greater risk of coronary disease and coronary events," says Dr. Franklin. "A classic study showed if you get an angry situation where you're upset with someone and you're in their face, your likelihood of experiencing a heart attack in the next hour is increased two to three fold."


You Consume Too Much Salt


A time-honored rule of heart health is to limit your consumption of salt. Known to increase blood pressure, sodium is a key ingredient in many unhealthy processed foods. "On average, the average American consumes about 3200 milligrams of salt per day and it should be less than half of that, about 1500 milligrams of salt per day," says Dr. Franklin. Fifteen hundred milligrams of salt is less than a 3/4 teaspoon salt per day!


You Ignore Your Snoring Problem


Snoring and sleep apnea are often signs of other hidden health issues. "Sleep apnea can potentially be a sign of undetected hypertension or can be one of the first signs of increasing obesity, which has a significant correlation with coronary artery disease," says Dr. Grayver. "Sleep apnea actually multiplies your cardiovascular risk several fold," Dr. James adds. "Sleep disturbances are a huge problem. They turn up the stress levels in your body. Turning up the stress levels in your body alone can cause insulin resistance, and that can be another trigger for diabetes type of problems in your body."


You Eat Food from BPA-laden Packaging


Canned soups may seem like a great solution if you need a cheap, low calorie meal. But there's a hidden danger. In addition to often containing a high amount of sodium, the cans containing these soups are lined with bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical known to cause disruptions in metabolic processes in the body, which can lead to obesity and cardiovascular diseases. Dr. Robert Sargis MD, PhD at University of Illinois at Chicago says 95 percent of Americans have traces of bisphenol A in their urine. The best way to avoid the chemical? Choose foods that come in as little packaging as possible and avoid drinking out of plastic containers. Opting for products advertising that they contain no BPA can be a gamble, Sargis says. "The question becomes, what was substituted for the bisphenol A? There's just another chemical that's put in its place and we may have less understanding of what that substitute is."


You Eat Processed Meats


High in sodium and preservatives, processed meats are a danger to the most important muscle in your body, according to Rene Ficek, registered dietician and lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating. "Regularly eating processed meat significantly increases your risk of death from heart disease and cancer," she says. "Some studies have quantified these results to show that each extra daily serving (approximately two rashers of bacon) raises your mortality rate by a fifth. Replacing red meat with fish, poultry or plant-based proteins could reduce the health risks by up to 14 percent."


You Eat Too Much Sugar

Cooking pasta

Whether consumed in soda and juices or in processed foods with low nutritional value like doughnuts and french fries, refined sugars are linked to many metabolic syndromes, like diabetes, which create the biggest risk factors for coronary artery disease. Causing a spike in your blood sugar, which results in a spike in insulin, also makes it difficult to lose weight. "It seems to send your body a signal which shifts you away from metabolizing stored energy that we carry as fat. It says you can't burn the fat," says James.


You Ignore Your Stress Level


Like sugar, stress causes spikes in insulin and is disruptive to the body. "Stress makes every metabolic process in the body worse," says Dr. Bowden. "It ages the body. It shrinks portions of the brain. It depresses the immune system and it can bring on a heart attack."


You Don't Pay Attention to Warning Signs


Doctors note that one of the keys to maintaining a healthy heart is to heed warning signs and have them investigated. "If you were able to walk several blocks before and now get short of breath walking short distances, it can be a sign of heart failure," says Dr. Brent Lampert, a cardiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "The longer it is ignored, the more severe it may become and the chances medical therapy will reverse it decrease. Any chest pain or pressure should be cause for seeking immediate medical attention as it could be a heart attack and timely treatment is critical to avoiding long-term heart damage." To blast even more fat, and live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these essential 25 Food Myths That Cause Weight Gain!

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