The sooner you begin reducing your risk of heart disease, the better. Remember that each risk factor that you reduce or eliminate lowers your chances of getting heart disease exponentially. Early prevention is about changing your lifestyle and habits to support a healthy circulatory system and a strong heart. Let’s start by taking a look at the role that diet plays in heart health.
The Components of a Heart Healthy Diet
What you put into your body has a direct impact on your health. While the occasional indulgence is okay, a daily diet of indulgences cause problems.
So what is considered an indulgence?
Foods that are high in sugar, saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt are all indulgences. The good news is that these foods are easy to identify. In general an indulgence is a processed food.
A heart healthy diet is a diet that is:
- Low in salt
- Low in trans fats
- Low in saturated fats
- Low in cholesterol
- Low in processed sugar
In general, that means if you eat a whole foods diet, you’re on the right track. A whole food is a food that has been processed or refined as little as possible, and is free from additives or other artificial substances.
A whole food breakfast might look like an egg and a piece of fruit or a bowl of oatmeal. A processed breakfast might look like a store-bought muffin or a bowl of cereal. (Cereal made from whole grains with no added sugars may be okay.)
Why Does a Whole Foods Diet Matter?
Whole foods matter because they not only provide your body with what it needs to thrive, it also has nutrients that are proven to lower your risk of heart disease. Yes, when you eat a diet that is rich in:
- Lean meats
- Whole grains
- Healthy fats from nuts and seeds
You reduce your risk of heart disease. That’s pretty great, right? Let’s take a look at the two critical components of your diet that impact your heart health, fat and sugar, and what they do for your health.
Fat and sugar impacts your cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is generally reported HDL and LDL. HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein and LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. High density is “good” cholesterol and LDL is “bad”. It’s easy to remember if you remember LDL is lousy. Your cholesterol may also be reported as a total of LDL and HDL.
Your risk for heart disease increases as your total amount of cholesterol increases.
- In general, your total cholesterol goal should be less than 200 mg/dl.
- Your HDL should be higher than 40 mg/dl for men and 50 mg/dl for women. The higher the better for this number!
- LDL should be less than 130 mg/dl.
Cholesterol is a waxy compound that is found in the cells of your body. Your body actually needs cholesterol to make hormones and some nutrients like vitamin D. However, too much cholesterol can contribute to clogged arteries.
A diet low in cholesterol, saturated and trans fat, and simple sugars will help lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk for heart disease.
High Blood Pressure
There are many reasons why your blood pressure may be high. It may be due to a hereditary condition. You may be salt sensitive, which means that too much salt can raise your blood pressure.
Dehydration can raise blood pressure as well. In many cases, blood pressure can be controlled through a healthy diet and exercise.
Many physicians recommend what’s often referred to as the DASH diet. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The diet reduces your intake of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and alcohol.
It also increases your intake of foods that are rich in minerals such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Generally speaking, if your diet is rich in whole, unprocessed foods, it is both low in cholesterol and also supports a healthy blood pressure.
We’ve already discussed the incredible increase in your risk of heart disease if you have diabetes. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented, controlled, and in many cases it can be eliminated with a healthy diet. It requires you to avoid foods that are high in processed sugars. Again, a whole foods diet doesn’t include any added sugars.
Your diet plays a critical role in your health, including the health of your heart. Simply by cutting back on your processed foods and eating more whole foods, you’ll reduce your risk factors. If you have any of the risk factors already mentioned, it’s time to pay attention to what you eat.
Your priorities include eliminating trans fats, reducing saturated fats, and reducing or eliminating processed sugar. Switch to whole grains and eat more fruits and vegetables. You can change your life and your heart health one good habit at a time.
Speaking of good habits, next let’s take a look at exercise. Diet and exercise combined can help ensure that you have a healthy heart for as long as you live.