Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States (cdc.gov). With February being National Heart Health Month, I figured it was the perfect time to discuss ways you can help protect yourself.

Some risk factors related to heart disease include

  • being overweight, having diabetes
  • poor diet
  • lack of physical activity
  • cigarette smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • hypertension
  • excessive alcohol intake

With all of this in mind, what is AWESOME is that you can control most of the factors that affect your risk for developing heart disease! Small changes you make to your diet can go a very long way!

  1. Know your numbers. Often times people are not aware of their blood pressure, or cholesterol levels. Both high cholesterol and high blood pressure are indicators of increased heart disease risk. A blood pressure of 120/80 is the standardized “normal.” Once individuals start getting above 130-139 / 80-89, they have entered stage 1 hypertension, increasing risk of heart disease.

HDL is considered our “good” cholesterol, and LDL is considered our “bad” cholesterol. Low levels of HDL paired with high levels of LDL is associated with increased risk of heart disease. LDL cholesterol contributes to plaque build-up in the arteries. HDL essentially “looks” for LDL cholesterol and shuttles it out of the arteries and into the liver to be broken down and excreted from the body.

Total Cholesterol should be <200 mg/dL

HDL Cholesterol should be >50 for females and >40 for males

LDL cholesterol should be <100 mg/dL

Knowing your numbers and what is typical for you is important to understand where changes need to be made. If you are able to, get regular checkups and be aware of your risk level. You can also order yourself a blood pressure monitor for more regular measurements.

2. Decrease processed meat consumption – Processed meat includes lunch meat, salami, bacon, brats, hot dogs, pepperoni, and sausage. Heart disease is not only related to some of the nutritional components of processed meat like saturated fat, sodium, and nitrates, but also the high-temperature processing of the meats. High intake of processed meat has also been linked to other diseases as well. The high sodium intake may cause hypertension, and nitrates have been linked to colorectal cancer.

Although further research is needed to look at the link between disease risk and processed meat consumption, it would be a good idea to replace processed meats with either a different lean meat, fish, or plant-based options.

This leads me into my next tip!

3. Increase fatty fish consumption– Fish like salmon, herring, and mackerel not only make a good alternative to processed meats because of protein content, but they are also high in Omega-3’s, which the average American does not consume enough of. Omega-3’s may exert anti-inflammatory properties, decrease blood pressure, and decrease serum triglycerides (fat in the blood). Studies show that consuming 1-2 servings of fish per week may decrease incidence of heart disease.

4. Increase plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. In general, plant-based foods are linked to a decreased risk of heart disease. The Mediterranean diet, which has been considered one of, if not the best heart healthy diet, has a heavy focus on all these foods that are not only high in vitamins and minerals, but high in fiber as well. Fiber has been shown to help decrease cholesterol, slow digestion, and control carbohydrate absorption, which not only protects against heart disease, but also diabetes. *People with diabetes are at an increased risk for heart disease due to high glucose levels in the blood that can damage blood vessels over time.

Aim for 1-2 servings of vegetables per day AT MINIMUM and 1-2 servings of fruit per day AT MINIMUM. Choose fresh or frozen vegetables over canned preferably. Fresh and frozen vegetables are higher in nutrients and fiber, and lower in sodium. The canning process can strip the nutrients from foods.

Swapping out some high fat animal products for soy products like tofu, tempeh, and edamame is a great way to decrease saturated fat and cholesterol intake. Soy products are a great source of protein, iron, and calcium! If you have heard any mixed reviews on soy and are worried about health implications, definitely check out this blog from Andy De Santis over at AndytheRD.com. It’s a great read!!

5. Increase physical activity– Run. Bike. Jump. Lift Weights. Take a Zumba Class. Run up and down your stairs a few times. I don’t care what it is, physical activity plays a HUGE role in our heart health and overall health. Guidelines are 150 minutes of physical activity per week. More specifically, 30 minutes of moderate intensity 5 days per week, or 25 minutes of vigorous activity 3 days per week. Being active not only helps maintain a healthy body weight, but it reduces risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and increasing HDL cholesterol. It also decreases risk of type 2 diabetes, strengthens muscles and bones, can help regulate sleep and mood, may reduce risk, THE LIST GOES ON. Studies have shown that heavier individuals who were fit had a decreased risk of heart disease when compared to slim un-fit individuals. Trying to incorporate physical activity into your busy life can be stressful at first, however, once it becomes routine, the benefits are irreplaceable.

I really hope you consider some of these points that I shared today to help protect yourself from heart disease. It’s hard to work toward preventing a disease that may seem so far away. Your future self will thank you if you start taking steps early on to maintain or better your health!




The impact of red and processed meat consumption on cardiovascular disease risk in women Stephen Bovalino B.Sc., Georgia Charleson B.H.Sc.,
Cassandra Szoeke Ph.D., F.R.A.C.P., M.B.B.S., B.Sc.(Hons.), G.A.I.C.D.

Micha R, Michas G, Mozaffarian D. Unprocessed Red and Processed Meats and Risk of Coronary Artery Disease and Type 2 Diabetes – An Updated Review of the Evidence. Current atherosclerosis reports. 2012;14(6):515-524. doi:10.1007/s11883-012-0282-8.


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