Cardiovascular disease, affecting the heart and blood vessels, remains the No. 1 killer for both men and women in the United States. Paying attention to risk factors and leading a healthy lifestyle can help keep your heart healthy.
A staggering one in four deaths in the United States is attributed to heart disease. While the statistics are scary, the good news is that heart disease risk reduction is clear and simple, and in most cases heart disease is preventable.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of all Americans have at least one of the top three risk factors for heart disease: high cholesterol, high blood pressure and smoking. Other risk factors, which are not controllable, include age and family medical history.
A solid plan to reduce the risk of heart disease includes regular health screenings and the ongoing management of current medical concerns such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. In addition, the role of lifestyle measures including a healthy diet, physical activity, stress management and smoking cessation cannot be underestimated.
Here are some simple, but mighty lifestyle habits that you can implement now to help protect your heart:
1. Get Outside and Walk
Walking is a relatively easy and accessible form of physical activity that offers numerous health benefits. Walking is particularly important for those who spend hours sitting or doing desk work every day. It’s a great source of aerobic exercise, which may also improve brain function and reduce stress levels. With no need for a fancy gym membership or equipment and the ability to go at one’s own pace, there are few good excuses not to walk. If you are considering implementing a plan to walk or add in other physical activity, talk with your physician before you get started.
2. Build Your Cooking Repertoire
Eating well is not about following a restrictive diet, but about including a wide variety of health-promoting ingredients. One way to improve your eating habits is to find healthy recipes that you can prepare at home. Cookbooks or food blogs that focus on the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan or the Mediterranean Diet can offer inspiring recipes that are geared towards eating for heart health. Build a routine of cooking new and interesting heart-healthy recipes at home.
3. Boost Your Fiber Intake
Fiber-rich foods are particularly important for heart health because they play a role in reducing cholesterol, regulating blood sugar levels and improving gut health, resulting in reduced inflammation. Plus, fiber-containing foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds tend to be good sources of essential vitamins and minerals. Choosing a variety of these whole plant foods every day can help you take in 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories consumed.
4. Read the Food Label for Nutrients to Limit
The Nutrition Facts food label is a small, but useful tool to help us understand the content of foods. Sodium, saturated fat and added sugars are considered nutrients to limit because they are associated with negative health effects and many of us consume too much of them. Take note of the serving size on the label and how many servings are in a package. While the acceptable daily limit for sodium, saturated fat and added sugars varies depending on factors like one’s overall calorie needs and individual health concerns, the food label can help in the comparison and selection of food products.
Whether you have risk factors for heart disease or not, consider taking one or more steps for a healthier heart. Actions like taming your stress levels, setting up a doctor’s appointment for an overdue physical exam or doing some research into your own family medical history can make an important difference in protecting your heart.
LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian, providing nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and organizations. She can be reached by email at [email protected].