10 Heart-Healthy Rules to Live By
You can prevent heart attacks
One in every four deaths in the U.S. is due to heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—in other words, taking care of this all-important organ should be a top priority for everyone. But how do you know if you’re at risk for heart disease? It all comes back to seven critical numbers that can serve as major clues to your health.
Choose whole grains over refined grains
Anything in whole-grain "kernel" form, including whole-wheat flour, brown rice, and oatmeal, is a heart-healthier choice than refined products such as white bread or white rice, notes Artinian. "If you don’t have the whole grain, you’re just left with the starch inside that kernel, and not the fiber and other nutrients that lower your cholesterol," she says.
The fiber in whole grains will also keep you feeling more full, helping reduce the number of calories you eat—also a good thing for the heart.
Eat oily fish
Salmon and tuna, among other oily fish, contain omega-3 fatty acids that have been found to lower the risk of heart disease by reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Omega-3s have also been shown to slow down the build up of plaque and blood clots, which can clog up the arteries.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating at least two 3.5-ounce servings of oily fish a week to keep the heart running like a well-oiled machine. If you have a choice, advises Artinian, always go with a natural source of omega-3 over a supplement.
Get a cholesterol test
Too much cholesterol—a wax-like substance that circulates throughout the body—can lead to the hardening of the arteries, heart disease, and a greater risk of a heart attack. Yet you can have high cholesterol and never know it. Hence, don’t wait for warning signs or symptoms. In order to keep cholesterol levels in check, the AHA recommends that healthy adults ages 20 or older get a cholesterol test once every 5 years.
People at risk for heart disease may need to be tested more frequently so that the results can be used to guide treatment, notes Artinian.
A heart-healthy diet should contain no more than 6 ounces of cooked lean meat a day. (A standard serving size is 3 ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards.)
"Pay close attention to the kind of meat you eat," she suggests. "Give preference to chicken over a sirloin steak, for example, as red meats are higher in saturated fat and cholesterol."
Further, avoid meats that have been smoked, as these can carry unhealthy additives such as blood-pressure-raising salt.
Getting your heart pumping with at least 30 minutes of moderate-level exercise on most days of the week will help stave off heart disease, according to the AHA. Artinian also recommends staying conscious of how active you are while you exercise. A fast-paced walk or jog, for example, will do your heart more good than a leisurely stroll.
And don’t forget to pair physical activity with a relatively low-calorie diet. "Only take in as many calories as you expend through exercise," adds Artinian.
Read food labels
Always check the food label before purchasing or consuming any product, recommends Artinian, and avoid foods that are marked as high in calories, sodium, or saturated fat.
But be sure to do your math. Labels will list both serving size and how many calories and other nutrients there are in a serving, so a little multiplication or division may be necessary. "You can’t just assume that whole can is a serving," Artinian says.
Be diabetes savvy
Diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease. In fact, at least 65% of people with diabetes die from some cardiovascular cause, according to the AHA. So avoiding the risk factors for diabetes—including obesity, physical inactivity, and a diet high in unhealthy carbohydrates (carbs that are high in calories and low in nutrients and fiber)—is a good heart-healthy idea.
If you are already one of the 26 million diabetics in the U.S., then it’s in your heart’s best interest to keep the condition under control. A diabetic should maintain a blood pressure below 130 mm Hg (systolic) and 80 mm Hg (diastolic), suggests Artinian. You should also have your blood sugar checked regularly, keeping the fasting blood-sugar level below 110 mg/dL.
Steer clear of added sugar
Consuming a diet that has too many sweets and processed starches has been associated with a greater risk of heart disease. So, whether you are diabetic or not, it is best to avoid added sugar, which is sugar added by a manufacturer and that can ramp up the calories in desserts, candy, and sweetened beverages. The AHA suggests no more than 100 calories of added sugar a day for women, 150 for men.
The human body doesn’t need sugar to function properly, and the extra calories could go straight to your waistline.
Be stingy with salt
To keep your blood pressure under control, and therefore lower your risk of heart disease, limit yourself to about half a teaspoon of salt a day, the AHA advises.
Even though many foods naturally contain salt, up to 75% of the salt in the typical American diet comes from processed foods—everything from soups to salad dressings. The ADA recommends choosing foods without added salt, and preparing home-cooked meals with little or no salt.
Eat fruits, veggies, and low-fat dairy products
One of the easiest ways to stay heart healthy is to simply eat more of the foods you’ve always known are good for you. This includes choosing nonfat or low-fat dairy products over whole-milk products and eating a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables.
"All fruits and veggies are rich sources of vitamins and fibers. You want to have an assortment," Artinian says. "The more, the better."
The AHA recommends that adults consume at least 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day, with an emphasis on raw or roasted over canned or frozen. (The latter tend to have more added salt.)