While cancer deaths tend to get more attention, heart disease is still the leading cause of premature death in the United States, and it’s a health problem that affects both men and women. The good news is that you can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) by modifying your lifestyle habits. Let’s look at some simple habits that can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease or heart attack.
Eat fish twice a week
Fish is an excellent source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and many vitamins and minerals. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Eating at least two servings of fish a week could reduce the risk of heart disease.” They recommend consuming fatty fish, like wild-caught salmon, twice per week. However, it’s important to avoid fish high in mercury: swordfish; shark; king mackerel; tilefish (golden bass); bigeye tuna; marlin; orange roughy; and bluefish.
Limit saturated fats and trans fats
Saturated fats are found in animal products, including red meat and dairy, while trans fats are man-made fats created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil. Both saturated fats and trans fats raise the risk of heart disease and stroke by altering blood lipid levels.
To limit your intake of saturated fat:
- Reduce the amount of meat you eat. Choose lean cuts (such as trimmed chicken breasts) or remove visible fat from meats before cooking them. Opt for fish instead of red meat at least twice a week.
- Replace some of the meat in your diet with plant-based alternatives.
- Avoid processed meat like sausage, bacon, and lunchmeat
Trans fats are found naturally in some foods, such as meat and dairy products, but also in some processed foods. Trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils, raise the amount of “bad” LDL cholesterol in your blood while lowering amounts of “good” HDL cholesterol. Trans fat also increases inflammation in blood vessels, thereby contributing to the hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned trans-fat in foods in 2018, some still contain small quantities. Read the label on packaged foods. If you see partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredient list, the product contains small quantities of trans-fat, and it’s best to avoid it.
Choose healthy monounsaturated fats
Monounsaturated fats are abundant in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and avocados. These fats reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and increase “good” HDL cholesterol levels. They’re considered “good” fats because they help lower the risk of heart disease.
Monounsaturated fats help promote a healthy heart by reducing bad LDL cholesterol levels and increasing good HDL cholesterol levels. Some, like extra-virgin olive oil, also contain anti-inflammatory compounds that reduce blood vessel inflammation, a contributor to heart disease. Substitute monounsaturated for saturated fat in your diet. For example, use extra-virgin olive oil in place of butter.
Choose whole grains over refined grains
Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber and can help you feel full for longer. They’re also good sources of B vitamins, important for energy metabolism and heart health. Avoid refined grains, like white bread and white flour. To make refined grains, manufacturers strip whole grains of their fiber and nutrients. The lack of fiber leads to blood sugar spikes that aren’t healthy for your heart.
The soluble fiber in whole grain foods also lowers cholesterol by binding to bile acids and carrying them out of the body before they are absorbed into the bloodstream. Avoid packaged foods that are processed and contain added sugar and salt. The American Heart Association recommends that most adults get no more than 2,300 milligrams per day (that’s about 1 teaspoon).
Eat foods rich in potassium and magnesium
Potassium and magnesium are essential minerals for heart health. Potassium is abundant in fruits and vegetables, and whole grains, nuts, and seeds are rich sources of magnesium. Potassium can lower blood pressure by reducing the stress on your arteries caused by sodium (salt). Magnesium has many benefits for heart health. It helps maintain healthy blood pressure and reduces insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Plus, magnesium is important for maintaining a healthy heart rhythm.
Talk to your doctor if you have reduced kidney function or take a potassium-sparing diuretic for high blood pressure. They may advise against consuming lots of potassium in this case.
Maintain a healthy weight and waist size
Staying a healthy weight is important to your health, but also maintaining a healthy waist size. The body mass index (BMI) is used to estimate whether someone has an ideal weight and height ratio. However, it doesn’t account for muscle mass or fat in the abdominal area, which has a stronger effect on heart disease than BMI.
Don’t just weigh yourself, also measure your waist size and keep tabs on it. Research shows that having a waist size of 40 inches or greater for men and 35 inches and over for women is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Exercise most days of the week
One of the best ways to improve your heart health is to exercise regularly. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking or cycling) on most days of the week. If you are new to exercising, start slowly and gradually increase the length and duration of your workouts. You can start with as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise daily and gradually build up to a higher intensity and duration. Aerobic exercise helps develop stamina, too.
Do more “incidental” movements. Get up and walk around and stretch, so you aren’t sitting for longer than 30 minutes at a time. Prolonged sitting reduces insulin sensitivity and affects blood lipids in a way that’s harmful to cardiovascular health.
Hopefully, these tips will help you live a healthier, happier life and avoid cardiovascular disease. Remember that it’s never too late to take control of your health — even if you’re already at risk for heart disease.
- “Omega-3 in fish: How eating fish helps your heart – Mayo Clinic.” 19 Apr. 2022, mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/omega-3/art-20045614.
- “How Potassium Can Help Control High Blood Pressure | American Heart ….” heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/changes-you-can-make-to-manage-high-blood-pressure/how-potassium-can-help-control-high-blood-pressure.
- “Your Waist Size Is a Clue to Your Heart Disease Risk – Healthline.” 22 Apr. 2021, healthline.com/health-news/your-waist-size-is-a-clue-to-your-heart-disease-risk.
- “Dietary saturated fat and heart disease: a narrative review” by Jeffery L Heileson, 16 December 2019, Nutrition Reviews.