Updated: Feb 26, 2022
Written by: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | February 1, 2022
With February being the month for heart health awareness (American Heart Month), I thought it may be helpful to provide a few of the tips I’ve shared with clients over the years who were concerned about cardiovascular disease — whether it was high cholesterol, blood pressure, triglycerides, etc.
If you thought this was going to be about how to protect yourself from heartbreak, I apologize. I guess my only advice there would be that time really does heal all and you will always learn from it. Also, don't date until you are (or are almost) 30. You'll just have better judgment then. : )
Back to heart health. There is a good chance you, or someone you know, may have concerns about their heart health. Nearly half of Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease. The good news is, though genetics play a role, most cases of heart disease are preventable or treatable through lifestyle habits.
These tips are also helpful for those without heart disease because they incorporate a variety of healthy nutrients that we all need and benefit from like fiber, antioxidants, and omega-3s.
Here they are!
1. Focus on Fiber
Fiber, particularly soluble fiber, helps to lower our “bad” LDL- cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber creates a gel-like substance when digested, which picks up excess cholesterol particles in the intestines while on its way out (yes, as poop). This prevents that excess cholesterol from getting reabsorbed into the bloodstream. Fiber has also been shown to play a role in the reduction of blood pressure and inflammation. Insoluble fibers help the process by aiding bowel movements as well. You need a mix of both soluble and insoluble fiber, along with plenty of water, for regular bowel movements.
Foods high in soluble fiber include: oats, barley, beans, legumes, fruits, peas, potatoes, and psyllium.
Foods high in insoluble fiber include: wheat bran, whole grains, seeds, and vegetables.
2. Know the Facts About Fats
We often associate dietary fat with being bad for our hearts or health in general, forgetting that there are different types of fats with different effects.
Unsaturated fats have been shown to improve cholesterol levels, decrease inflammation, and stabilize heart rhythms. These are the fats that are liquid at room temperature like olive and canola oil. Other foods sources of saturated fat include: fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
Saturated fats are linked to increasing the “bad” LDL cholesterol, but we also need a little in our diets to help with things like calcium absorption. This is why it is recommended 10% or less of our daily caloric intake come from saturated fats (i.e., to have saturated fats in moderation). These are the fats that are solid at room temperature and mainly come from animal sources like butter, full-fat dairy, meat and poultry. Other sources include coconut oil, palm oil, and kernel oil. This does not mean we have to cut out animal products entirely, just try to aim for the reduced fat options when possible (i.e., low-fat dairy, skinless chicken, lean cuts of beef).
Trans fats have been shown to not only raise LDL cholesterol levels, but decrease our "good" HDL cholesterol, and increase inflammation and triglyceride levels, too. These fats are a result of heating vegetables oils in a process called hydrogenation. Common sources include frying oils at restaurants, store bought baked goods, and they are naturally present in small amounts in beef and dairy fat. Because they can greatly increase the risk of heart disease, the FDA has banned manufacturers from adding trans fats to processed foods as of January 2020. If you're unsure if a food you enjoy regularly has trans fats, just look for "partially hydrogenated oils" in the ingredients section of food labels. (Chances are if it is on there, it is way down on the list meaning it contains a very little amount since the FDA has gotten involved).
Remember that we do need fat in our diets. Fats are important for our hearts, skin, hair, hormones, brain functioning and mood. In fact, diets that are low in fat but high in carbohydrates are linked to increasing triglyceride levels — another risk factor for heart disease. Aim to get most of your daily/weekly fat intake from unsaturated sources.
3. Incorporate Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat that have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and strokes in a number of ways. They help to: reduce risk of blood clots and inflammation, protect artery lining by keeping it smooth and damage-free, decrease triglyceride levels, and may increase HDL cholesterol and lower blood pressure.
They also play an important role in brain functioning and mood, brain development in babies, skin and joint health, and have been shown to be beneficial for eczema and rheumatoid arthritis).
Sources of omega-3s include: fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, herring, and tuna. Other sources include: chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, seaweed, edamame, flaxseed oil, and omega-3 or fish oil supplements.
4. Be Mindful of Sodium
Diets high in sodium are a risk factor for high blood pressure and other cardiovascular complications. Sodium is a mineral and an electrolyte, so we do need some in the diet in order to properly do things like contract and relax muscles, balance fluid/minerals in the body, etc. This is why the Dietary Guidelines for American’s recommend sodium intake of <2300mg per day (some people may need more if they have very low blood pressure or POTS disease, or are endurance athletes losing a lot through sweat).
The main sources of sodium in the diet are restaurant and processed foods — not the salt shakers we use at home. But to help reduce salt use at home, we can try to use more dried or fresh herbs like basil, parsley, rosemary, or thyme and cook with garlic, onions, ginger, etc. for added flavor.
5. Boost Potassium
Potassium, like sodium is a mineral and electrolyte and is also involved with fluid balance and nerve functioning. Diets high in potassium-rich foods have been shown to reduce blood pressure, especially in those with high sodium intake (i.e., it helps to counterbalance sodium's effects). And since most fruits and vegetables contain potassium, by boosting your intake of potassium, you're also boosting your intake of antioxidants, fiber, and a variety of vitamins and minerals.
This is basis of the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). This is a flexible eating plan that promotes high intake of potassium-rich foods and reduced sodium intake, along with other heart healthy recommendations like increasing fiber, and reducing saturated fat.
Potassium rich foods include: bananas, oranges, cantaloupe, dried fruits, beans, potatoes, leafy greens (like spinach and broccoli), winter squash, avocados, dairy, and coconut water.
6. Move More, Mindfully
Moderate exercise is beneficial for reducing blood pressure, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, while also increasing HDL cholesterol levels. Aerobic exercise improves blood circulation, which can lower your blood pressure and heart rate, along with helping to strengthen your heart (i.e., increasing cardiac output). Exercise is also a form of stress relief and can improve our stress response. Forms of exercise like yoga or tai chi that focus on breathing and the mind-body connection can be a form of meditation, which also reduces stress. Stress, especially chronic stress, is related to high blood pressure and other behaviors that can increase our risk for disease like smoking, excessive alcohol intake, poor sleep, etc.
By incorporating some of these lifestyle habits, along with reducing some others (like smoking cigarettes and excessive drinking), we can help to reduce our risk. Keep in mind that even small changes make an impact; taking a quick walk on your lunch break, adding chia seeds to your cereal for extra fiber and omega-3s, adding a vegetable side at dinner — they are all steps towards a healthier heart.