No one ever had fun visiting the cardiologist. Regardless of how good the doc might be, it’s always a little scary thinking about the health of something as fundamental as the heart. But there are ways to take greater control—to ensure that your own heart health is the best it can be—even if you have a family history of cardiovascular disease.
Although 50% of cardiovascular-disease risk is genetic, the other 50% can be modified by how you live your life, according to Dr. Eugenia Gianos, director of Women’s Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “This means you can greatly reduce a high genetic risk or greatly worsen a low genetic risk,” she says. “Your fate really lies largely in your hands.”
Having that kind of control over your heart health is particularly welcome news right now, with cardiovascular disease remaining the number-one killer of both men and women. A recent CDC report revealed that “largely preventable” heart problems killed around 415,000 Americans in 2016. Under its Million Hearts campaign—which aims to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes by 2022—the CDC identified approximately 2.2 million hospitalizations and 415,000 deaths from heart attacks, strokes, heart failure and related conditions in 2016 that likely could have been avoided.
“Many of these cardiovascular events are happening to middle-aged adults—who we wouldn’t normally consider to be at risk,” CDC principal deputy director Dr. Anne Schuchat said in a statement. “Most of these events can be prevented through daily actions to help lower risk and better manage medical conditions.”
Beyond remembering to go easy on the cheeseburgers, what else can you do to protect your heart? We all know the broad strokes—eat well, work out and find ways to relax—but science is learning more about the specifics that make a real difference. Consider this your daily planner for heart health.
- Add more plants to your menu
The more vegetables you eat, the better your cardiac future looks. Research shows that people who eat plant-based diets are less likely to develop heart disease. And the more plants, the greater the benefits, Gianos notes.
Fruits and vegetables work their magic in several ways. First, they provide heart-healthy nutrients, including fiber, antioxidants, potassium, B vitamins, and vitamins A and C, explains Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian in private practice in Los Angeles and New York. And nonstarchy vegetables—from spinach to broccoli to peppers—are low in calories and carbohydrates too, helping keep weight under control. Not to mention, veggies supply prebiotics, nondigestible carbs that serve as food for beneficial probiotic bacteria.
“This is key because we’re learning more about the role of a healthy gut microbiome in disease prevention,” Sass says. Veggies also help reduce chronic, low-level inflammation, which has been linked to heart disease.
Rather than dwelling on cutting back on red meat, think of what you’re adding to your plate. “Focus on what to eat as much as what to avoid,” Sass notes, “and be open to experimenting.” Aim big: five cups of fruits and vegetables a day. It sounds like a daunting number, but by working in a cup at breakfast (with eggs, in a smoothie or mixed into overnight oats), two at lunch and two at dinner, you can get your fill.
When doing meal prep, flip your thinking. “Build meals around veggies, so they’re never an afterthought,” Sass advises. Instead of having the typical pasta primavera that is a mound of spaghetti with a few shavings of carrots and a couple of broccoli florets on top, reverse it so that you fill your plate with steamed or sautéed veggies over a modest portion of pasta—or better yet, farro or quinoa. “It may feel less satisfying at first,” Sass concedes, “but the rewards, like more energy, sustainable weight loss and better digestive health, can drastically improve your everyday quality of life.”
- Watch animal fat
Heard the buzz about how butter is good for you? Don’t believe it, warns Gianos: “Animal fats and even animal proteins are definitely linked to elevated cholesterol and elevated heart risk. It’s so important that this message is clear so we can reverse the increase in heart disease–related death.”
Monounsaturated fats, on the other hand—the ones in olive oil, avocado and many nuts—along with polyunsaturated fats from fish like wild salmon and sardines, are great for heart health. Part of the confusion about the risks and benefits of fats stems from the fact that saturated fats, like those from animals, may in fact be neutral for some people, Sass explains. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe for everyone.
Nobody pretends that we’re going to live in a meatless world anytime soon, but moderation can make a big difference. If you do eat meat, keep your portions small, go easy on sugar, processed carbs and butter, and help yourself to plenty of vegetables and fruits. Also keep in mind that the quality of the animal fat matters, Sass says. “Grass-fed and organic dairy and meats provide some beneficial fats that are not in conventionally produced animal foods.”
- Slash added sugar
In a study in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers reported that people who ate the most sugar had a higher risk of death from heart disease, even if they weren’t overweight. Another study found that spending just three months on a sugar-heavy diet changed fat metabolism in healthy men, causing them to develop non-alcoholic fatty-liver disease, which boosts the risk of cardiovascular disease.
While the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that women have no more than six teaspoons worth of added sugar daily and men stick to nine, the average intake for all Americans is now the equivalent of 22 teaspoons per day, Sass says. (Four grams of sugar is one teaspoon’s worth.)
What is added sugar, anyway? It refers to sugar that is not found naturally in food. Honey in your tea is added sugar. The sugar in a banana is not. Some foods like yogurts and fruit bars may have both natural and added sugars, and it’s usually unclear from labels what the ratios of each are. But the FDA’s new food labels—which must be adopted by Jan. 1, 2020—will require companies to spell out the amount of “added sugar,” making it much easier to track your sugar load.
- Don’t smoke. And if you do, stop
Do you smoke even a little? If so, know this: “Smoking even a single cigarette can induce changes that lead to a heart attack,” Gianos says. Lighting up increases your risk of atherosclerosis, raises your chances of blood clots, reduces blood flow and puts you at increased risk for stroke. But it’s never too late to quit and start reversing the damage. “Heart disease risk goes down 50% in the first year [after quitting] and becomes equivalent to a nonsmoker after 10 years,” Gianos says.
- Drink in moderation
Heavy drinking does the body no favors. It can lead to weakened heart muscle and irregular heart rhythms, as well as dementia, cancer and stroke. But could drinking just a little be heart healthy? The science is unsettled. While some research suggests that moderate drinking (up to a drink a day for women and up to two for men) is linked with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, the research does not prove cause and effect, Gianos cautions. For example, it could be that people who drink regularly take time to relax with loved ones, and that may be what is providing the heart benefit.
- Exercise often
There’s no doubt that exercise is essential for a strong heart. One 2018 study published in the journal Circulation found that physical activity can even counteract a genetic risk for heart disease. The researchers looked at 500,000 men and women in the U.K. and found that those at the highest risk of heart troubles who had high levels of physical fitness had a 49% lower risk of coronary heart disease. While the AHA recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, Gianos urges 30 to 60 minutes every day. Overall the goal is to move daily, but don’t feel you have to run 20 miles a day. “Extreme exercise has not been noted to be protective,” Gianos says, “and it may add some harm.”
- … And stand up for your health
Prolonged sitting is terrible for our bodies. It has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and early death. If you have a desk job, make sure to get up and move frequently even if you have to set your alarm on your smartphone to sound every hour to remind you. “Ten-minute spurts of exercise throughout the day can counteract that risk,” says Gianos.
- Watch weight gain
Obesity is a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. Being overweight but not obese still puts you at risk for insulin resistance, which is linked to heart disease. The more fat a person carries around the abdomen in particular, the higher the risk.
Gianos recommends following the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. Both are rich in plants, with an emphasis on leafy greens, whole foods and plant fats like olive oil. Your eating schedule matters too. “Sticking to three balanced meals and one snack works well for optimizing energy, blood sugar and insulin regulation, digestive health and weight,” Sass says. “Time your carbs for early in the day, before your most active hours.”
- Tame stress
Believe it or not, “stress can increase your risk of heart disease 2.5-fold—similar to smoking and diabetes,” says Gianos. That’s because chronic stress puts the body into constant fight-or-flight mode, triggering inflammation, high blood pressure and other unhealthy changes. But mindfulness can be a powerful antidote to that modern state of overload. By focusing on our thoughts and sensations, we can learn to control our body’s response to stress.
Practices like meditation, deep breathing and yoga have been shown to dial down the stress response. In 2017, the AHA endorsed seated meditation as a “reasonable intervention” along with other strategies for maintaining cardiac health. Research also shows that yoga improves circulation and blood pressure and may lower heart disease risk as much as brisk walking.
- Nurture close relationships
Could good interpersonal ties bolster the cardiovascular system? One study found that people who were socially isolated and lonely were more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than people with strong social networks. Being in a supportive marriage also cuts your risk heart disease, according to a 2018 study. Your relationships may actually matter more to your lifelong health than your cholesterol readings, suggest findings from the 80-year-old, ongoing Harvard Study of Adult Development. The researchers have discovered that the people who were most satisfied with their relationships at 50 were the healthiest at 80. Love, it seems, really is good for the heart.