Susan Biali, MD
Because heart disease can result from the diet and lifestyle choices you make every day, you can begin to make new, better choices, starting today.
In over 10 years of practice as a medical doctor I’ve observed that what most people worry about is being diagnosed with cancer. Yet heart disease, the single leading cause of death in both men and women in North America, is a far more likely culprit. Here’s the good news: because heart disease can result from or be accelerated by the lifestyle choices you make every day, you can begin to make new choices, starting today, that will significantly decrease your risk of developing or dying from a cardiovascular condition, no matter where your heart’s health stands right now.
Yoga calms your body and protects your heart by soothing your parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that regulates automatic functions such as our heartbeat, breathing, and digestion.
A recent small study out of India found that practitioners of yoga experience more variability in their heart rate throughout the day, a sign of a happy parasympathetic nervous system and better cardiovascular health.
Your weight relative to your height is an important indicator of your cardiovascular disease risk. While I don’t advocate obsessively weighing yourself every day, do so at least monthly to keep track of where you are and where you’re headed.
To calculate your BMI, divide your weight in kilograms by your height in metres squared. A BMI over 30 puts you at serious risk for heart disease; aim for a heart-healthy BMI between 18.5 and 25.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found naturally in oily fish such as salmon, as well as flaxseeds and walnuts, have been established by a multitude of studies to be a healthy heart super-nutrient, preventing heart disease and improving outcomes and survival in those who already suffer from poor heart health.
Take 1 g a day of a combination of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
Fibre found in whole grains, fruits, legumes, and vegetables lowers cholesterol levels and decreases inflammation in your body that may predispose you to heart disease. Oatmeal is a great choice for breakfast as it is both low on the glycemic index (so it only minimally increases your blood sugar) and full of soluble fibre that lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Keeping blood sugar levels steady throughout the day will protect you from developing diabetes or pre-diabetes, two conditions that dramatically increase your chances of developing heart problems.
Although gum disease isn’t yet an official risk factor for heart disease, experts predict that it will soon make the list. Flossing and brushing regularly prevents the buildup of bacteria and associated gum inflammation that are thought to contribute to poor cardiovascular health.
Stress isn’t just stressful for your mind and emotions—it takes its toll on your heart and blood vessels too. Keep your cardiovascular and nervous systems calm and healthy by breathing deeply and reminding yourself throughout the day to maintain a healthy, sane pace.
Whenever you find yourself getting stressed, frustrated, or starting to rush yourself, stop to breathe and remind yourself to take your time. The more time you take for life now, the more time you’ll likely have left before the end of your life.
Green tea contains powerful natural antioxidants called catechins, while dark chocolate is rich in antioxidant polyphenols, both of which boost cardiovascular health by reducing inflammation and preventing damage to your artery walls.
A cup of tea might also be a good idea after a high-fat meal: recent research by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center showed that tea may relax blood vessels made tense by the consumption of heavy, rich foods.
Exercise may be the best medicine for a happy, healthy heart. Regular cardiovascular exercise raises good cholesterol levels, lowers blood pressure, improves circulation throughout the body, helps you maintain a healthy weight, and keeps your heart functioning more efficiently even when you’re at rest.
Of course, it’s always a good idea to check with your health care practitioner before beginning any new exercise program.
Make it a rule to include at least one serving of a vegetable or fruit every time you eat a meal or have a snack, to ensure that you get within the five-to 10-serving range recommended for optimal heart health.
Great heart-healthy choices include tomatoes and lycopene-rich, tomato-based sauces; leafy greens; nutritional powerhouses such as broccoli and cabbage; and varying combinations of other colourful, antioxidant-rich vegetables.
Junk food or low-quality baked snacks are often high in heart-toxic trans fats and inflammation-causing refined sugar.
Stick to healthy, natural high-fibre choices instead, such as good-quality multigrain snack crackers or baked multigrain chips. Check labels for fibre content and look for zero levels of trans fats.
Red wine contains high levels of the polyphenol, resveratrol, an antioxidant that is thought to protect the lining of your blood vessels and at least partially account for the link between red wine consumption and heart health.
A glass will likely do it, so it’s best to limit yourself to moderate consumption. Women should exercise caution, as consuming as little as one alcoholic drink a day has been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
Monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocados, and many nuts and seeds can lower both your total cholesterol levels and LDL cholesterol.
Olive oil is also thought to be a potent anti-inflammatory food; a Mediterranean-style diet rich in olive oil, whole grains, legumes, fish, and vegetables has long been noted for its heart-healthy benefits.
It is well established that the quantity of positive social contacts you enjoy in your life is directly linked to your risk of developing or dying from heart disease.
Make a point of making as many positive connections as possible with others, however brief, throughout your day and take time with loved ones to increase your odds of living a long, happy life.
Numerous studies have shown a link between religious or spiritual practices and cardiovascular health. Whatever it is that you believe, take time to immerse yourself in it and remind yourself of life’s bigger picture. Your heart will thank you for it.
Aim to get at least eight hours of sleep a night. Most of us are sleep deprived, and many studies have shown that this takes a direct toll on your heart’s health.
Sleeping less than seven hours a night is associated with high blood pressure, increased levels of stress hormones, weight gain, and the development of diabetes. Can you afford not to get a good night’s rest?
If you practise even a few of these tips, you’ll significantly increase the probability that your heart will keep beating happily for many years to come. See your health care practitioner regularly for checkups, and remind yourself that no matter what condition your heart is in right now, it’s never too late to make a positive change.
Although some sample menus offer portion sizes, I generally don’t like to use them. Rather I prefer to give a general idea and then encourage portion sizes based on true hunger level (versus appetite) and eventual satiety.
For example, I would suggest balancing your meal plate like this:
Determine actual portion size in proportion to your hunger, and stop when full even if there is food still on your plate. For example, someone who is very active with higher energy needs would serve the same 1/2 - 1/4 - 1/4 proportion, but with bigger portions.
In the case of snacks, such as corn chips, have the snack only if you are truly hungry, and stop when you start to feel full (ideally three-quarters full, as the long-living Japanese of Okinawa say).
NOTE: this is a sample menu meant to describe just one day; for best results, eat a variety of healthy foods that change from day to day. Adjust quantities and number of meals, and add supplements based on feelings of hunger/satiety and your unique dietary needs.