Did you know that you can reduce nearly every risk factor for heart disease by making healthy lifestyle choices such as eating a wholesome diet, exercising regularly and not smoking? A diet that is low in salt and fat and high in fiber, for example, lowers blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol and raises “good” cholesterol, which will help to keep your heart healthy.
“Salt encourages fluid retention which can lead to high blood pressure and damage to the heart muscle as well as contributing to congestive heart failure and valvular heart disease,” says Rich Leyman, P.A. of the Cardiovascular Group at Taylor Hospital. “Yet, the average American consumes three to eight times the recommended daily intake of under 2.5 grams. I recommend eliminating salt all together and substituting with products like Mrs. Dash and other spices. Also be sure to watch for hidden sodium content in foods that you may think are healthy such as canned vegetables. Read the labels!”
Fat and Cholesterol
Fat raises bad cholesterol in the blood which contributes to the buildup of a material called plaque on the inner walls of the coronary arteries, resulting in coronary artery disease. Eventually, blood flow to the heart muscle is reduced by the plaque buildup, and the heart muscle is not able to receive the amount of oxygen it needs. This is likely to result in a heart attack.
Saturated fats, which are found in red meat and dairy products, are the most detrimental to your health. You can avoid them by choosing skim and nonfat dairy products. Limit intake of red meat to two lean 3-ounce servings per week and prepare it by grilling, baking or broiling. Eat more fish and chicken which are very low in fat.
Trans-fatty acids, which are found in shortening and margarine made from plant oils, are also harmful. “The more solid the product, the worse it is for you. So, for example, stick margarine is worse than tub margarine which is worse than squeezable margarine,” explains Leyman. “Trans fat content is also very high in fast foods as well as most baked goods, including plain old white bread.”
Polyunsaturated fats, found in many nuts and seeds, corn, soybeans and safflower, are somewhat less detrimental. The least harmful are monounsaturated fats such as olive, canola or peanut oil.
Shellfish and eggs are also high in cholesterol. In fact, one egg contains about two-thirds of the recommended daily allowance of 300 mg.
Combat Cholesterol with Fiber
Dietary fiber helps absorb cholesterol and move it out of the body. As a result, the cholesterol doesn’t have the chance to get into the bloodstream and cause heart disease. Whole grain bread, crackers and pasta are among the healthiest high fiber foods because they involve less processing. The less a food is processed, the less fat, cholesterol and trans-fatty acids it is likely to have. Some of the best sources of fiber are fresh fruits and vegetables because they involve no processing at all.
Smoking and Alcohol
If you smoke, QUIT. Smoking raises blood pressure, damages the arteries, increases your heart rate and causes disturbances in the heart’s electrical system which increases your risk of heart dysrhythmia. It also lowers the oxygen levels in the blood stream and causes lung damage. Since your heart provides oxygen to the rest of your body, anything that affects your lungs causes your heart to work harder, which increases the risk of heart disease.
Alcohol disrupts the electrical function of the heart and can trigger dysrhythmias. It can also raise blood pressure and blood sugar. Currently, the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of one to two alcoholic beverages per day. Studies have shown that higher consumption often causes deterioration of the heart muscle.
How Does Exercise Benefit the Heart?
Regular exercise lowers your blood pressure, lowers bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol which decreases your risk of forming plaque in your coronary arteries. Exercise also strengthens your heart muscle and lowers your blood sugar. It can decrease your stress level and improve lung capacity. Exercise can also help you lose weight which reduces stress and strain on your heart.
“Lifestyle modifications can be a very potent way of preventing or treating heart disease,” concludes Leyman. “Studies have shown that people with documented blockages in their arteries who adhered to a strict diet, exercised regularly and didn’t smoke had either reduced blockages or no blockages at all after six months. That’s a pretty convincing argument for making heart healthy choices!”