Diet and Exercise Tips for Healthy Hearts
Cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer of both men and women in the US. One in 3 deaths are caused by a cardiovascular-related disorder each year – that’s approximately one every minute! So how can we reduce our risk of heart disease and keep our hearts happy and healthy?
Cardiovascular disease (sometimes called atherosclerosis) describes a situation where there is a build-up of fatty deposits inside the walls of the arteries. As the plaque accumulates, it hinders the flow of blood that carries oxygen and nutrients around the body. The tiny arteries that run through the heart and nourish it are particularly susceptible to plaque accumulation. If any of them become blocked, a heart attack may occur.
Putting a stop to heart disease
Ok, now that we understand what heart disease is, how can we prevent it? Current research tells us that there are five main risk factors for heart disease:
- Elevated blood lipids (High LDL cholesterol)
- High blood pressure
- Sedentary lifestyle.
Other areas researchers are currently examining for their role in heart disease include:
High sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP). This is a normal protein that appears in higher amounts when there is inflammation somewhere in the body. High hs-CRP levels may be a risk factor for heart disease. It's thought that as coronary arteries narrow, there is more hs-CRP in your blood.
High triglycerides. This is a type of fat (lipid) in your blood. High levels seem to raise the risk of coronary artery disease, especially for women.
Homocysteine. This is an amino acid your body uses to make protein and to build and maintain tissue. But high levels of homocysteine may increase your risk of coronary artery disease .
The great news is that all of these factors are directly modifiable through diet, exercise and lifestyle. There is plenty we can do to reduce our risk of developing cardiovascular disease and keep our hearts healthy.
How what we eat affects our hearts
The way we nourish our bodies has a direct impact on the health of our hearts. If there are four dietary factors that affect our heart health the most, it must be the big four: Fats, Fibre, Sugar, Salt.
The fats we consume have a direct impact on heart disease risk, by influencing both our cholesterol levels and the level of inflammation in our bodies. Both elevated cholesterol levels and chronic inflammation are directly linked to cardiovascular disease.
Saturated fat from dairy products, red meat and butter tend to increase harmful LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats). They also promote inflammation. Trans fats from deep-fried and processed foods and margarines may be even worse, increasing LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and decreasing beneficial HDL cholesterol.
To keep your heart healthy, cut down on saturated and trans fats and emphasise healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats help to manage inflammation and maintain healthy cholesterol levels, lowering harmful LDL cholesterol and increasing healthy HDL cholesterol.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats also help to make blood less viscous (or sticky), reducing the likelihood of clots.
Get monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from avocado, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil; raw, unsalted nuts and seeds; and dark oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines.
Typically associated with digestive health, you might wonder what fibre has to do with our cardiovascular system. Turns out, quite a lot. Fibre has an important role in regulating our cholesterol levels. It acts a bit like a ‘broom’ for the digestive system, helping to clear out toxins, spent hormones and excess LDL (bad) cholesterol. Without adequate fibre, these toxins and cholesterol are re-absorbed back into the circulatory system.
Add more fibre by increasing your consumption of legumes like lentils and chickpeas, oats, prunes, psyllium, rice bran, whole grains and fruits and vegetables to your diet.
Damage to arterial walls is now recognised as a primary cause of coronary heart disease. The body uses cholesterol to ‘patch up’ the damaged areas of arteries, creating risk of potential blockages. Excessive consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates can lead to insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome. Insulin resistance describes a situation whereby the body’s cells have become resistant to the effects of insulin, meaning when we consume carbohydrates, the glucose is no longer able to be transported into body cells. The chronically elevated blood sugars characteristic of metabolic syndrome can cause damage to arteries. Cutting down on sugar and refined foods is an important way to control your risk of both insulin resistance and heart disease.
High blood pressure is a key risk factor for coronary heart disease, as it causes damage to arterial walls. It also increases the risk of stroke. Salt (sodium) intake has a direct impact on blood pressure, as it affects the fluid balance in our cells.
When there’s excess sodium in the bloodstream, it pulls water into the blood vessels, increasing the total volume of blood inside your blood vessels. With more blood flowing through your blood vessels, blood pressure increases. It’s like turning up the water supply to a garden hose — the pressure in the hose increases as more water is blasted through it.
Cutting down on salt is an important way to control your blood pressure. Avoid adding salt to food and reduce your intake of processed foods, as over 75% of the salt in most people’s diets comes from packaged foods. Read labels carefully and cut down on packet sauces, biscuits, cakes, crackers and chips. Aim for less than 1500mg of sodium per day to keep blood pressure healthy.
The answer to a healthy heart? Live the Mediterranean Lifestyle
Although it’s important to be aware of the role of macro and micronutrients in maintaining your heart health, constantly monitoring every morsel that goes in your mouth is both stressful and unnecessary. Keeping your heart healthy is a lifestyle. And if there’s one lifestyle that stands out when it comes to healthy hearts, it’s the Mediterranean one.
The Mediterranean Diet is inspired by the eating habits of people living in Greece, Southern Italy and Spain in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It emphasises fruit, vegetables, olive oil, fish, wholegrains, nuts and seeds and a little red wine. It contains almost no processed foods and sugar and very little red meat.
The Mediterranean diet has been repeatedly linked to a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk. By limiting saturated and trans fats and emphasising healthy monounsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts and seeds, the diet promotes healthy cholesterol levels and helps to control inflammation, a key causative factor in cardiovascular disease. High intake of antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables (plus a little red wine!), helps keep arteries healthy and protect LDL cholesterol from harmful oxidation. Limiting processed foods keeps sugar and sodium levels in check.
The protective effects of a Mediterranean diet have been extensively studied, with one particular study showing the diet may decrease the risk of cardiac death by 30 percent and sudden cardiac death by 45 percent!
How to eat the Mediterranean way
- Eat at least 7+ servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
- Spread bread with olive oil rather than butter.
- Limit red meat to once or twice per week. Avoid processed meats (bacon, ham, sausages, salami) all together.
- Consume fish and seafood at least two to three times per week.
- Snack on raw, unsalted nuts and seeds.
- Enjoy a little red wine in moderation. Stick to no more than two drinks per day (each drink is 100-140ml), with at least two alcohol free days per week.
- Limit refined and processed foods such as biscuits, cakes, crackers, canned foods, takeaways.
Get moving to keep your heart healthy
Eating well is essential to a healthy heart, but it’s only part of the picture. Getting active is one of the most important things you can do to keep your heart strong and reduce your risk of heart disease.
Physical activity works in a number of ways to maintain healthy hearts:
- Strengthens the heart muscle
- Controls body weight
- Reduces blood pressure
- Reduces bad (LDL and total) cholesterol
- Increases in good (HDL) cholesterol
- Increase in insulin sensitivity.
In fact, exercise may be the most important factor in reducing your risk of heart disease. A study analysed the activity level of 6213 US veterans over a six-year period and compared their risks of death (after allowing for age adjustment). The men were grouped into five categories according to their fitness level. Over the six years, the healthy adults who were the least fit had a mortality risk 4.5 times than that of the most fit. But the most surprising thing about the study was that an individual’s fitness level was a more important predictor of death than established risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
Exercise may even be able to repair damage to arteries caused by eating high-fat foods.
So how much exercise do we need?
The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate activity on most or every day of the week to maintain a healthy heart. Modest activity is defined as any activity that is similar in intensity to brisk walking at a rate of about 3 to 4 miles per hour.
Many every day activities also count towards the 30 minutes of physical activity per day, such as:
- Taking the dog for a walk
- Washing the car
- Doing gardening
- Taking the stairs whenever you have the option
- Taking the kids out for a bike ride or walk
- Jumping on the trampoline with the kids
- Ditching the car – park further away from your destination and walk the difference or take public transport.
- Vigorous cleaning like vacuuming, scrubbing floors or cleaning the shower.
If you’re really pressed for time, your workout doesn’t have to be completed all in one session. Working out for short bursts a few times a day can bring similar benefits to a complete 30-minute workout.Go for a ten-minute walk a couple of times a day, do a bit of cleaning, maybe some quick push ups or squats, and your workout is done for the day!
A bit of extra help
Cardiovascular risk increases with age, so it’s important to take extra care of heart health when you reach your 40’s and 50’s. To further support the health of heart and cardiovascular system, a range of heart health supplements from Xtend-Life could help.
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