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How Healthy is Your Heart?

apple-and-heartHow often do you think about your cardiovascular health?   Did you know, according the to the NIH, a man’s risk for heart disease begins to increase significantly by the age of 45 and women’s risk increases starting at age 55.  It may take years for cardiovascular disease to develop and there are steps you can take now reduce your risk factors.  There are several modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease including maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol levels and physical activity. Sure, there are risk factors you cannot modify such as age and a family history of cardiovascular disease, but even so, those aren’t reasons to ignore those risk factors you can change.    Let’s get started.

High Blood Pressure:  Every time you go the doctor, they check your blood pressure, but sometimes they don’t tell you unless you ask.  Ask and keep a record over time so you can identify any trends.   Normal blood pressure is less than 120 mmHG/80 mmHG.   Dietary changes such as increasing potassium intake through fresh fruits and vegetables, calcium and magnesium rich foods, and reducing sodium and alcohol intake can help lower your blood pressure.    Aim for 4700 mg daily of potassium through fruits and vegetables such as squash, potatoes, broccoli, oranges, melon, and bananas. Calcium found in low fat dairy products and the magnesium in whole grains, nuts and seeds and green leafy vegetables might also play a role in maintaining healthy blood pressure.   Reducing your sodium intake will make an impact on high blood pressure.  Start by using less salt when cooking and seasoning your foods, instead use fresh herbs and spices or just go without.   If you drink alcohol, limit it to 1 drink per day for woman and 2 drinks per day for men.


Cholesterol:   The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) as an effective way to reduce LDL cholesterol.  Ideal total cholesterol is less than 200 mg/dl and an optimal LDL is less than 100 mg/dl.   In addition to a low cholesterol and saturated fat diet, several foods such as those high in soluble fiber, plant stanols, soy protein and tree nuts, are suggested to aid in lowering LDL cholesterol.   Combining several of these cholesterol-lowering mechanisms will have an even greater impact than each one alone.

  • Soluble Fiber:  The NIH estimates adding 5-10 grams of soluble fiber per day may lower your LDL level between 3 and 5%.  You may already be eating several foods high in soluble fiber such as, oats, barley, legumes, psyllium, apple, pears and strawberries.   For example, ¼ cup dry steel cut oats cooked at breakfast topped with 1 tablespoon of ground flax seed and 1 large pear would provide approximately 5 grams of soluble fiber.
  • Plant Stanols:  Adding 2 grams of plant sterols/stanols per day, when part of a heart healthy diet, may decrease your LDL cholesterol by 5-15%.  Plant sterols/stanols enriched margarines are readily available and can easily be swapped for a more saturated fat such as butter.
  • Soy Protein:  Swapping soy protein for an animal protein high in saturated fat may potentially decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease.  Whole soy proteins include edamame, tofu, tempeh, miso and soymilk.    Start simply by using extra firm tofu in your next stir-fry or switching to soymilk.
  • Tree Nuts: Rich in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fat, tree nuts such as almonds, pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts are an excellent way to add nutrients to your diet and may help reduce your LDL cholesterol.    Eating just 1.5 ounces per day as a snack or tossed in a salad or stir fry is an easy way to boost your diet with heart a healthy food.

Physical Activity:  We often think of exercise as a way to maintain weight, but it’s also important to remember the cardiovascular benefits you gain every time you exercise.   Exercise doesn’t have to be hard and strenuous and some activity is always better than none.  As a matter of fact, breaking exercise down into 10-minute intervals is a good way to get started in an exercise program.  Current recommendations, by the US Department for Health and Human Services, for adults aged 18-64 per week is 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise OR 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous intensity or an equivalent combination of both.   Further recommendations are for adults to strength train 2 days or more per week.

Again, combining several of the methods to maintain a healthy heart will have more impact than each one alone.   For additional information check out the American Heart Association at


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