The heart is one of the hardest working organs in the human body. It beats 80 times per minute and pumps upwards of 1,500 gallons of blood per day. It’s no wonder that when we treat our bodies poorly—when we smoke, eat junk food, and shun exercise—our workaholic hearts bear the brunt of that neglect.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in four Americans will die from cardiovascular disease, an umbrella term that refers to all conditions affecting the heart and circulatory system, such as stroke, heart attack and aortic disease.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, and while these conditions are largely preventable, the incidence of their risk factors—high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, tobacco use and obesity—continue to rise.
How can we protect ourselves from heart disease?
“One of the easiest and most important changes a person can make is dietary modification,” says Samuel Suede, MD.
Dr. Suede is chief of cardiology at Englewood Health and a founding partner of Cardiovascular Associates of New Jersey. When it comes to advising his patients on heart health, Dr. Suede has a few ready tips.
“First, eat the rainbow—include a wider variety of color in your diet. Consume unprocessed, healthy foods rich in nutrients and vitamins, such as green leafy vegetables, fresh berries, fruits, fish, lean meats and whole grains.
“Second, cut the salt. You don’t have to eliminate it all at once, but reduce the amount you use with each meal, work toward preparing foods with little or no salt, and never use a salt shaker.
“Third, don’t regularly indulge in sweets. Read labels and minimize the amount of sugar you consume in beverages and prepared foods,” says Dr. Suede.
How do I know I’m picking the right foods?
As you walk down the aisles of your local grocery store, you’ll see all kinds of brands claiming to be “heart healthy.” But how many of those labels can be trusted?
While some food and drink labels are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many are not, and telling the difference can be confusing. The only label you can be sure has been vetted for truthfulness by the FDA is the mutrition facts label, found on the back or side of food and drink packages.
Being an informed consumer is an important part of protecting your heart. Learn to read the nutrition label facts. Seek out food s with low levels of added sugar, sodium and trans fats, as well as higher levels of calcium, dietary fiber, potassium and vitamins A, C, D and E.
How much exercise do I really need?
When it comes to the heart, diet alone is not enough to boost long-term health. Exercise is the other half of the equation. You don’t have to become a gym rat, but you do need to get your heart rate up a few times per week.
“Make sure you’re not sitting all day—move more! Build exercise into your schedule, so it becomes a habit. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five days a week. If you have a job that keeps you deskbound, take breaks to stretch and go for a walk,” Dr. Suede says.
What else can I do?
Dr. Suede explains that it’s critical that you make every effort to quit smoking and limit alcohol intake to one glass or less per day.
“If you do overindulge, don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t give up. Each new day counts when it comes to heart health,” Dr. Suede says.
One of the most important pieces of advice Dr. Suede gives his patients is to relax.
“Stress itself can cause and aggravate hypertension,” he says. “It can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, excessive drinking, overeating and physical inactivity, causing high blood pressure and high cholesterol.”
Learning healthy ways to cope with stress is a lifelong journey for many of us. A good place to start is by cultivating a new hobby or exercise routine. Spending time with people who make you feel at ease, whether family, friends, coworkers, or a romantic partner, is also a great way to unwind.
“Our Graf Center for Integrative Medicine here at Englewood Health offers yoga, guided meditation, massage, acupuncture, aromatherapy, Reiki, smoking cessation courses, nutritional counseling and various other services to help relax the mind and body,” says Dr. Suede.
As clichéd as it might sound, a new year, and especially a new decade, is a great time to take stock of your health and begin to make improvements. Where do you want to be at the end of this year, and eventually the end of the decade? The decisions you make about your heart health today should inform that answer.
“This year, focus on you,” says Dr. Suede. “Manage and prevent your risk factors, take steps to reduce your stress levels, exercise regularly, take heed of any warning signs and have an in-depth conversation with your physician about your numbers and heart health.”
By Sam Suede, M.D.