Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD
Edited By Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD
February is National Heart Health Month! During this month every year, we are reminded to take care of our hearts and take steps to prevent heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans, but it is considered a “silent killer” because people often aren’t aware they have it until it starts to cause serious problems.1 For this reason, it’s really important to have regular visits with your doctor where you get your blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels checked. At the same time, maintaining a healthy weight, staying active, and following a heart-healthy diet are valuable ways to slow or prevent heart disease from developing in the first place.
A heart-healthy diet is full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, fish, legumes, vegetable oil, and nuts, and lower in sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, processed red meats, and sodium. If you’d like a more specific meal plan, both the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet have been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease.2 You can also modify your current diet to incorporate some heart-healthy elements; the first step could be to eat more fruits and vegetables. Studies have shown that eating more than five servings of fruits and vegetables every day improves blood pressure and the health of your small blood vessels, and eating more than seven servings of fruits and vegetables each day can reduce your risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 31%.3 One possible explanation for this is the high fiber content in fruits and vegetables. Fiber can keep you full for longer so you won’t be tempted to snack later in the day, make you absorb sugar more slowly so your blood sugar stays even, and reduce the amount of cholesterol you absorb from food. Vegetables seem to have a stronger impact on heart disease risk than fruits,3 so consider adding an extra serving of vegetables to your lunches and dinners.
It is also important to limit the amount of saturate fat you eat, and choose unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats whenever possible. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are found in vegetable oil, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and avocados. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are found in full-fat dairy, red meat, animal fat, and coconut oil.4 Reduce the amount of saturated fat you eat by choosing lean meat, vegetable oil, and low-fat dairy instead. Low-fat dairy in particular has been shown to help reduce blood pressure, possibly because it contains a lot of potassium and calcium.3
In addition to modifying your diet, the American Heart Association recommends at least 2½ hours per week of moderate-intensity physical activity, or 1¼ hours per week of vigorous activity to reduce your risk for heart disease.2 Studies have shown that active people are about 30-35% less likely to develop heart disease than inactive people. Among active people, spending less time sitting every day further lowers your risk for heart disease. Among inactive people, even small amounts of activity can help you reduce your risk for heart disease – there is no “minimum threshold” where activity becomes helpful. In general, though, the more active you are, the lower your risk of heart disease gets.5
The American Heart Association says the entire population would benefit from eating a heart-healthy diet and engaging in regular physical activity.2 In addition to protecting you against heart disease, following these recommendations can help you maintain a healthy weight, lower your risk for Type 2 Diabetes, and keep you healthy as you age. It is never too soon to start working to prevent heart disease. This National Heart Health Month, make one change that will benefit you for a lifetime!
- The Heart Foundation. http://www.theheartfoundation.org/heart-disease-facts/heart-awareness-month/. Accessed February 21, 2017.
- Millen BE, Wolongevicz DM, Jesus JM de, Nonas CA, Lichtenstein AH. 2013 American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology Guideline on Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk: Practice Opportunities for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014;114(11):1723-1729. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2014.07.037.
- Berciano S, Ordovás JM, Berciano S, Ordovás JM. Nutrition and Cardiovascular Health. Rev Esp Cardiol. 2014;67(9):738-747. doi:10.1016/j.rec.2014.05.003.
- Saturated fat, regardless of type, linked with increased heart disease risk. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2016/12/19/saturated-fat-regardless-of-type-found-linked-with-increased-heart-disease-risk/. Published December 19, 2016. Accessed February 21, 2017.
- Shiroma EJ, Lee I-M. Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation. 2010;122(7):743-752. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.914721.