Heart disease is the most common cause of death in developed countries, and yet it is a disease that is largely preventable.
The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD), which affects the blood flow to the heart. Blocked blood vessels prevent the heart from getting enough oxygen. This damages the heart, and it can lead to heart attacks or strokes.
Other symptoms of heart disease include chest pain or discomfort, indigestion, heartburn, nausea or vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, dizziness, shortness of breath, swelling of the feet and ankles, and even erectile dysfunction (many men are surprised to learn that cardiovascular problems are the most common cause of ED).
How Lifestyle Choices Cause Heart Disease
Diets that are high in saturated fats and trans fats cause plaque to build up in blood vessels, restricting blood flow. Sodium increases blood pressure, putting additional strain on the heart. These three ingredients – saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium – are the primary causes of the epidemic of heart disease in developed countries.
To reduce the chances of heart disease, it’s critical to reduce your consumption of these “bad” ingredients, and to eat a heart-healthy diet.
Maintaining your heart health also requires:
- Avoiding tobacco and vaping (if you smoke, STOP).
- Getting regular aerobic exercise.
- Minimizing or eliminating alcohol.
- Finding ways to reduce stress in your life.
- Establishing a regular sleep schedule, and getting enough sleep.
Note that, if you have been diagnosed with heart disease, lifestyle choices by themselves are not sufficient to recover. Your cardiologist may recommend procedures to remove blockages in arteries, and medicines designed for cardiac rehabilitation.
A Heart Healthy Diet
Perhaps the most critical lifestyle change to avoid heart disease is to eat a healthy diet. That means learning about good foods and bad foods, planning your meals, and learning how to cook healthy meals. We’ve recommended some cookbooks at the end of this section to help you get started.
Unfortunately, prepared foods – whether purchased at the grocery store or in a restaurant – are often very high in ‘bad” ingredients. It’s important to learn how to read an FDA Nutrition Facts label.
For an “average” person, eating 2,000 calories per day, the American Heart Association recommends that stay within the following daily limits:
- Saturated Fat: 11-13 mg.
- Trans Fat: Avoid!
- Sodium: 2,300 mg. People with heart disease should try to stay under 1,500 mg.
It’s also a good idea to avoid Added Sugar, which just adds calories with no nutritional value.
You probably know that your doctor is concerned about you Cholesterol levels, so you may be wondering why we don’t emphasize restricting the cholesterol in your diet. The cholesterol in your bloodstream is produced in your body; the cholesterol that you eat has little impact.
Eating “heart healthy” requires learning about nutrition, and building new habits… so let’s get started!
Pay attention to portion sizes, and note the serving size on Nutrition Facts labels. Use measuring cups and spoons until you learn how to judge a portion.
Note that a portion of meat, fish, or poultry is much less than we usually eat… just 3 or 4 ounces (about the size of a deck of playing cards).
Fruits and Vegetables
Keep plenty of fruits and vegetables on hand. These should be the major part of your diet. You can eat fresh, canned, or frozen fruits and veggies, but if you eat packaged foods, be sure to check the Nutrition Facts label for fats, sodium, and added sugar!
Choose 100% whole grain products. Avoid white bread, refined flour, and white rice. Be sure to check the Nutrition Facts label!
Breads and baked goods are often very high in “bad” ingredients. Salt plays an important chemical role in baking, so it can be hard to find low-sodium breads.
Not all fats are bad! In fact, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may actually reduce the buildup of blockages in blood vessels. But remember to use moderation, because fats can add a lot of calories.
|Good Fats||Bad Fats|
|Vegetable and nut oils||Bacon fat or other meat fats|
|Margarine (trans fat free)||Coconut or palm oils|
|Nuts and seeds||Dairy fat|
|Avocados||Cocoa butter (found in chocolate)|
Proteins and Dairy
Lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, beans and legumes are all good sources of protein. Certain types of fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower blood fats called triglycerides. Other sources of omega-3 are flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil.
|Good Proteins||Bad Proteins|
|Low-fat dairy products, such as skim or low-fat (1%) milk, yogurt and cheese||Full-fat milk and other dairy products|
|Lean meat and skinless poultry||Fatty and marbled meats|
|Fish, especially fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon||Organ meats, such as liver|
|Beans and legumes||Hot dogs and sausages|
Avoid adding salt while cooking or at the table. Healthy people should limit sodium (salt) to just 2,300 mg per day. That’s one teaspoon! People who have been diagnosed with heart disease should consume even less – just 1,500 mg per day.
Unfortunately, much of the sodium we consume comes from prepared foods. It’s important to be vigilant in checking for hidden salt. Even so called “lower sodium” products are often very high!
Stock your kitchen with salt-free herbs and spices, and low-sodium soups and sauces.
Check the following products carefully – they are often very high in sodium:
- Most canned soups and sauces.
- Condiments such as catsup and salsa.
- Bread and baked goods.
- Tomato juice.
- Soy sauce and other soy products.
- Cheese (look for low-sodium cheese, Swiss cheese, or fresh cheeses such as mozzarella).
It’s important to find recipes that you enjoy! Continue to try new recipes and build up a list of favorites. Plan your meals to avoid falling back into bad habits.
To help you get started, we’ve got a collection of great heart healthy cookbooks on our Resources page!
Exercise is a key factor in good heart health. You should set up a regular exercise program that includes both aerobic exercises, and strength or resistance training. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, plus at least two days of strength exercise, spread throughout the week. People who exercise 300 minutes or more each week see greater benefits.
If you are sedentary, or you have been diagnosed with heart disease, talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.
Aerobic exercise increases the body’s use of oxygen, and increases your heart rate. Examples include walking, bicycling, running, and swimming.
|Water aerobics||Swimming laps|
|Bicycling (less than 10 miles per hour)||Bicycling (more than 10 miles per hour)|
|Tennis (doubles)||Tennis (singles)|
|Gardening||Heavy yardwork (digging, etc)|
Knowing your target heart rate can also help you track the intensity of your activities. Talk to your doctor about the appropriate target heart rate, which will be based on your age and health.
Strength (Resistance) Exercises
Strength or resistance exercises strengthen your muscles by making them work against a weight or force.
Examples include working out with free weights (barbells and dumbbells), weight machines, resistance bands, or even using your own body weight (pushups and pullups). For maximum benefit, you should work out two or three times per week, but not on consecutive days.
You’ll find plenty of workout routines online that you can do at home with inexpensive weights and resistance bands. Some people find it easier to stick with a program if they join a gym or work with a trainer, but this isn’t necessary to get started.
Flexibility (Stretching) Exercises
Stretching doesn’t contribute directly to heart health, but it reduces soreness, muscle pain, and the possibility of injury. It’s a good idea to warm up with stretching exercises before an aerobic or weight workout, and to cool down with stretches afterwards.
Breaks and Benefits
If you spend most of your time sitting, it’s important to take short breaks every 30-60 minutes, and move around for two minutes. This can be a good way to get in some additional stretches.
An exercise program that includes aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching, along with regular breaks, has many health benefits. In addition to improving your heart health, and exercise program will:
- Lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia and Alzheimer’s, several types of cancer, and some complications of pregnancy.
- Reduce your weight.
- Reduce insomnia and improve your sleep.
- Improve brain function, including memory, attention and processing speed.
- Reduce your risk of injuries and falls.
- Relieve depression and anxiety.
- Give you increased confidence!
For most people, tracking your progress with your workout routine is key to staying motivated. There are many apps available to track your training, but a simple spreadsheet works just fine.
Basic Workout Gear
You don’t need a fully equipped gym to get started with an exercise program! Click the pictures below to check out some basic equipment at Amazon.