User's Manual: Your Heart

How to Have a Healthy Heart For Life

What to eat to keep this vital organ beating strong—now and for decades to come.

James Wojick
Ready for some exciting health news? "Ninety-nine percent of heart disease is preventable by changing your diet and lifestyle," says Dean Ornish, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and author of Dr. Dean Ornishs Program for Reversing Heart Disease. Whats more, scientists are discovering that we dont have to ban all fat and salt to stay healthy. Instead, you just need to cut back on saturated fat (which comes from meat and whole-fat dairy) and trans fats (found in partially hydrogenated oils in fried and many processed foods). These types of fat seem to increase levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, which lines arteries with plaque and can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Good fats, on the other hand—such as monounsaturated (think olive oil and avocados) and polyunsaturated fats, like omega-3 fatty acids (found in sunflower oil, soybeans, and some fish)—lower LDL levels and raise levels of "good" HDL cholesterol. Meanwhile, a 2011 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association challenges the notion that we all need to slash our salt intake, suggesting that going low-sodium is more important if youre at high risk of heart disease—say, you have a family history of the condition, you have diabetes, or you smoke.

Whether or not you have these risk factors, though, prevention is key. And it starts on your plate. See how three women staged their own heart-healthy dietary interventions, and follow in their footstepsto keep your heart pumping strong now and in the decades to come.

Build a better diet
Lily Lin, 31, recently got a serious health wake-up call: She was diagnosed with prehypertension at 30, then prediabetes the next year—both conditions that up your chances of developing heart disease. She was placed on blood pressure medication as a result. Then her maternal grandmother died from a stroke. Lin knew that her dad had high blood pressure and her mother had high cholesterol—heart disease risk factors that she had a chance of inheriting. "Id thought I had years before I needed to worry about those things," she says.

Lin, a business analyst in New York City, decided to take charge of her health and went to the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, which focuses on reversing heart disease and other conditions through lifestyle changes. Pritikin doctors advised Lin to lower her intake of animal protein, due to its saturated fat content, so she traded her deli meat lunches for tofu, beans, and grilled fish.

Lin also learned to limit refined carbohydrates, including muffins and her 100-calorie cookie snack-pack breakfasts. Moderate to heavy consumption of simple carbs like these can double your risk of heart disease, a 2010 Archives of Internal Medicine study suggests. Instead, she now fills up on fiber-full complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal. "I learned that fiber carries cholesterol out of my body instead of into my bloodstream," Lin says. Adding in more fruit made a difference, too; in fact, scientists have just discovered that the effects of the gene most closely linked with heart disease can actually be modified by eating plenty of fruits and raw vegetables.

Lins efforts have paid off: She was recently told she could stop taking her blood pressure meds. "Ive never felt so good," she says. "My friends and family see the changes in me. I used to live to eat, but now I eat to live."

Moves to make in your 30s: Talk to your MD about your family history of heart disease, and ask about any other personal risk factors to watch for. For example, if you had gestational diabetes or preeclampsia when you were pregnant, your risk of heart disease is at least doubled. If youre at low or no risk, get your blood pressure checked every year and get a cholesterol baseline, too. "If results are normal, you can wait till your 40s to repeat the test,"says Jacob DeLaRosa,MD, author of the Heart Surgery Game Plan.

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Aviva Patz
Last Updated: December 13, 2011

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