Heart disease is one of the most pressing public health issues of our time, killing nearly one million people a year in the United States alone. Fortunately, it is preventable. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight or obese, smoking, excessive alcohol intake, poor diet, and physical inactivity are all risk factors that may contribute to heart disease. Luckily, they are all factors that we have some control over.
Here are three simple tips that can dramatically reduce your risk for heart disease:
1. Eat Good Fats – Eating plenty of heart healthy fats is one of the simplest (and most palatable) ways to improve your heart health. For many years, fats were vilified as the culprit for a number of health risks, such as high cholesterol, obesity, and high blood pressure. It’s ironic however that as the percentage of fat in the American diet has gone down, risk factors for heart disease have gone up.
|American Diet in 1960’s||American Diet in 2000’s|
|Dietary fat 45%||Dietary fat 33%|
|13% adults obese||34% adults obese|
|Less than 1% Type 2 Diabetes||11% Diabetes (mostly Type 2)|
Starting in the 1980s, many people began replacing fat calories with calories from processed, sugar-laden foods, such as white bread, white flour products, high fructose corn syrup, etc. Many health experts now believe that these types of refined, high glycemic index (GI) foods are actually worse for heart health than saturated fats. Research has proven that eating plenty of fats and oils— when they come from good plant sources— offers plenty of health benefits with no increased risk for cancer, heart disease, obesity, or any other health condition.
Good plant-based fats include extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds (especially walnuts and flax seeds), avocados, peanut butter, and almond butter. Some plant-based oils are highly processed, such as canola oil and soybean oil, and should be limited or traded for healthier alternatives, such as olive oil.
The jury is still out on saturated fat and heart disease risk. Saturated fats may not be as bad for heart health as once thought, however, it makes sense to eat foods high in saturated fat (such as cheese, butter, and cream) only in moderation.
Trans fats are harmful to heart health and it’s best to completely eliminate them from your diet.
2. Reduce Intake of Sugar and Processed Foods – Many of the sugary and processed foods that we consume today didn’t even exist until the last century. Modern methods of food processing have made it possible for these foods to now dominate the American diet, yet not without taking their toll on our health.
Eating processed foods that cause dramatic spikes in blood sugar is a major risk factor for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity— all of which increase the risk for heart disease. These types of foods also tend to be very addictive and as more processed foods are consumed, the less we tend to eat nutrient-dense, heart-healthy foods.
It may take some time to adjust to eating less processed foods, but the more wholesome foods we eat, the more we will crave them and the better we will feel. Choosing whole, unprocessed carbohydrates like whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables is a clear path to better heart health.
3. Exercise – Exercise has been dubbed the “fountain of youth” for good reason—staying active is one of the most powerful steps we can take to improve heart health, boost quality of life, and prevent disease. Exercise directly benefits your heart and reduces risk factors for heart disease:
- Lowers risk for being overweight or obese
- Reduces LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
- Increases HDL (“good”) cholesterol
- Increases insulin sensitivity
- Reduces risk for Type 2 diabetes
Exercise also improves overall well-being by increasing our self-confidence, reducing stress and anxiety, and boosting the immune system.
The most dramatic improvement in heart health is for those who go from being completely sedentary to being at least somewhat active. It doesn’t take a lot of exercise to achieve significant benefits. The general guideline is to do a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week and to aim for at least 90 minutes of vigorous activity per week. (Always check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise program.)
The more we exercise, the more enjoyable it becomes—walking, swimming, and biking are fun ways to be active. Many people find hatha yoga asanas to be a great way to be active at home or in yoga classes. By using Wai Lana’s yoga DVDs you can do a yoga workout in the comfort of your living room or bedroom.
Your heart works hard every day to bring nutrients and oxygen to your entire body. Following these simple tips will help make your heart and cardiovascular system healthy and strong.