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Heart Healthy Eating: Protect Yourself from Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., affecting millions of Americans of all ages and backgrounds.1 While there is a genetic component to heart disease, there are many lifestyle choices people can make to reduce their risk of developing the condition. Read on to learn more.

What Is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is a broad term that refers to any chronic condition affecting the heart. The most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease, in which the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart become damaged or diseased. Most often this happens as a result of plaque build-up, which narrows the arteries that supply blood to the heart, resulting in reduced blood flow. Symptoms of coronary artery disease can include shortness of breath, fatigue with exertion (in some cases extreme), and chest pain (angina)

This is a diagram of a human heart with blood flow information

Additional forms of heart disease include:

  • Arrhythmias
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Heart valve problems/disease

Conditions that can lead or contribute to the development of heart disease include high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes, metabolic syndrome, stroke, and high cholesterol. Doctors diagnose heart disease with a variety of tools, including EKG machines, holter monitor systems, stress test systems, and other tools and tests.

Heart Disease by the Numbers

According to the Heart Foundation.2

  • Heart disease (all forms, including stroke) is the leading cause of death in the U.S.; in 2011, cardiovascular disease killed nearly 790,000 people.
  • Cardiovascular diseases kill more Americans every year than all forms of cancer combined.
  • The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease, which accounts for the deaths of nearly 380,000 people every year.
  • The direct and indirect costs associated with diseases of the heart are enormous, totaling more than $320 billion.

Women and Heart Disease

Breast cancer has gotten a lot of attention in recent decades, which has generated awareness among girls and women about monitoring breast health, but, while 1 in 31 women will die from breast cancer each year, a shocking 1 in 3 will die of heart disease. Heart disease is more deadly to women than all forms of cancer combined. Women generally lack awareness about the deadliness of heart disease—in fact, just 1 in 5 women believes heart disease is a woman’s greatest health threat. The symptoms of a heart attack can be different for women than for men—that’s why it’s so important for women to know the symptoms.

Genes and Environment: The Perfect Storm

A family history of heart disease is an indicator that a person has a genetic predisposition to heart disease. This is especially true in people with a parent or sibling who developed coronary artery disease before age 55 (males) or 65 (females). In those who have a genetic predisposition, lifestyle choices like eating right, exercising regularly, not smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption are especially important. Additionally, keeping cholesterol and blood pressure under control, keeping stress to a minimum, and properly managing/preventing diabetes are important in the prevention of heart disease.

Heart Healthy Eating

Diet is one of the most important factors for maintaining heart health. A heart healthy diet is one that is rich in vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean meats, minimal dairy, moderate amounts of/no alcohol, and limited sodium. Eating whole foods is the key. A vegetarian/vegan diet can also provide all of the nutrition you need, but make sure to talk to your doctor about your specific needs before making dramatic changes to your diet.

Here are some guidelines for a heart healthy diet:

  • Choose whole foods—Including whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables—This includes fresh or frozen vegetables, canned fruit packed in water, and canned vegetables (as long as they’re low sodium).
  • Limit unhealthy fats—These include saturated fats and trans fats, which should make up a very small amount of your fat intake—7% or less for saturated fats and 1% for trans fats. Read food labels carefully, and avoid margarine, butter, and shortening in your cooking. Use olive and canola oil instead. 
  • Limit added sugars—Figuring out what constitutes added sugars can be tricky, especially when it comes to packaged foods, because the sugars listed on the package include natural sugars found in the food, not just added sugars. The best way to identify added sugars is to read the label. Sugars go by an dizzying array of different names, including sugar, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, cane juice, honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrates, nectar, malt syrup, and more. Anything with the letters “ose” at the end are sugars. The AHA recommends limiting the number of calories from added sugars to no more than 100/day for women and no more than 150/day for men.
  • Choose proteins wisely—Good choices are low-fat dairy products, fish, skinless poultry, tofu and other soy products, legumes (beans), eggs, and lean ground meats. Avoid smoked and cured meats, hot dogs, fatty cuts of meat, full fat dairy products, spareribs, fried meats, and organ meats.
  • Limit sodium intake—Sodium loves to hide in processed and prepared foods. Limit sodium to no more than 1,500 milligrams per day. Using salt-free spice blends will make food more palatable without the added salt.
  • Watch portion sizes—Many of us greatly underestimate how many calories we’re consuming, because what we think of us a portion size has become so skewed over the years, with supersized menus at fast food restaurants and enormous portions at sit-down establishments. There is no limit to the amount of vegetables you should put on your plate, but watch portion sizes for grains, meats, dairy, fats, and sugar. One serving of vegetables is one cup, and one serving of meat is 3 ounces, or around the size of a deck of cards.

Here is a variety of healthy freshly harvested vegetables

The Problem with Highly Processed Foods

What’s the difference between a “whole” food and a “processed” food? There is understandably quite a bit of confusion surrounding what constitutes a processed food these days, so we’ll attempt to demystify it below.

It could be argued that all food is “processed” to some extent. Even fruits must be harvested, transported, cleaned, and, in some cases, waxed, before they reach the produce aisle. Some amount of mechanical processing of foods is fine. For example, apples that have been cored and mashed into plain applesauce—provided that it contains minimal added sugars and other additives—is still considered a whole food, because all of the nutrition and fiber are still present in the food, and it has been minimally altered.

When the structure of a food has been changed to such an extent that the resulting product is nothing like the food from which it came, or there are harmful additives in a food, processing becomes more problematic. For example, whole wheat that has been refined into white flour is structurally different than the whole wheat from which it originated. The bran and germ have been removed, resulting in lower fiber content. As a result, refined flour is processed by the body differently (and more detrimentally).

Highly processed foods also often contain chemicals and other additives, such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which can harm health. Sugar, HFCS, and other sweeteners can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can lead to metabolic syndrome, which can lead to diabetes. Diabetes can lead to heart disease.

So, what to choose? If you’re going to buy processed foods (i.e. those that are typically found in the center aisles of most grocery stores), choose items with the fewest ingredients, and look for whole grains. For example, a box of crackers with an ingredients list that looks like this: “whole wheat flour, canola oil, salt” is probably a good choice, while a box of crackers with 25 ingredients, many of which you can’t pronounce, is a not a good choice. Convenience foods such as frozen dinners and microwavable noodle bowls are most often loaded with added sugar, salt, and chemicals, and are best avoided.

Spotlight on Sodium

A high-sodium diet can be especially troublesome when it comes to heart health, because excess sodium can put you at risk for developing hypertension (high blood pressure), heart failure, and an enlarged heart. High blood pressure is a leading cause of death in the U.S. Most Americans consume far more sodium than they realize—on average, 3,500 milligrams per day, while the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams. Most of this excess sodium comes from processed foods and eating out, while just 10% comes from home cooking and salt added at the table.3

The good news is that there are plenty of salt alternatives that add lots of flavor without the sodium, and you’ll probably find that once you taper off all the added sodium your palate will adjust.

A healthy diet is one of the most important things people can do to reduce their risk of developing heart disease. Learn more about healthful eating with this helpful article published by the Mayo Clinic.



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