Every 37 seconds someone in the United States dies from cardiovascular disease. Adopting a heart healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, and other chronic illnesses. A heart healthy lifestyle is not a “diet.” It’s a pattern of eating and exercise that supports lifelong health and well-being. Modeling positive choices will help kids to develop healthy habits for life. Follow these steps to develop your own heart healthy lifestyle.
Step 1. Choose Heart Healthy Foods
A diet high in saturated fat and trans fats can lead to cardiovascular disease. Some foods that are high in saturated fats are beef and pork, deep-fried foods, and processed foods. Processed foods are those that you buy in a box or package and have more than one ingredient. Some popular processed foods are cereals, chips, cookies, pastries, crackers, and microwave snacks. Processed meats include bacon, sausage, hot dogs, pepperoni, salami, and deli meats.
Health care professionals often recommend an eating plan called the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH). This plan emphasizes fruits, vegetables, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and whole grains (see sidebar).
The DASH eating plan has been shown to reduce high blood pressure and the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Another similar eating plan is the Mediterranean Diet.
Step 2. Avoid Unhealthy Foods
Avoid foods that are high in added sugars, saturated and trans fats, and sodium. Unhealthy food choices include:
- Processed treats and snacks (such as crackers, chips, microwave snacks)
- Sugary foods (such as cookies, donuts, cake, pies, candy, sugary cereals, soda)
- Fast food (such as pizza, hamburgers, French fries)
- Foods from vending machines
- Deep-fried foods (such as French fries, fried chicken)
- Sugary drinks
- Foods made with refined white flour (such as white bread, biscuits, rolls, cereals made with white flour)
Step 3. Get Enough Exercise
Lack of exercise is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans advise adults to get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity (such as brisk walking) each week. Even short periods of physical activity have health benefits.
Avoid sitting for long periods of time. New evidence shows a connection between sedentary behavior and increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and mortality.
Start with One Heart Healthy Action Day Each Week
Adopting a heart healthy lifestyle may seem overwhelming. But the most important thing that you can do for yourself and your family is to just begin. Start small. Remember that you are working on a lifestyle change. Adopting a healthy lifestyle is not as easy as trying out a fad diet or making a New Year’s resolution to lose 10 pounds.
Pick one day of the week to be your “Heart Healthy Day”—say Wednesday. Then do ONE action from the Heart Healthy Action List (see sidebar). Don’t feel compelled to change everything all at once. Just pick one heart healthy action. Then if that action works for you, consider repeating it another day. If not, don’t worry. Try another action next Wednesday. Over time, your awareness of a heart healthy lifestyle will increase, and you will make positive changes.
DASH Eating Plan
Here are the recommended daily servings from the DASH eating plan for someone who needs about 2,000 calories a day:
- Fresh fruits (4 to 5 servings)
- Vegetables (4 to 5 servings)
- Fish, poultry, lean meats (6 ounces or less)
- Nuts, seeds, dry beans/peas (4 to 5 servings per week)
- Whole grains (6 to 8 servings)
- Low-fat dairy (2 to 3 servings)
- Healthy fats (2 to 3 servings)
Information from National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) website. DASH Eating Plan. Available at https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/dash-eating-plan.
Heart Healthy Action List
Here are some heart healthy actions to try on your Heart Healthy Day:
- Eat fruit twice today. If you always keep apples and bananas, try something different. Some options are blueberries, raspberries, pineapple, strawberries, or mango.
- Eat a serving of fish high in omega-3’s. Good choices are halibut, salmon, sardines, or smoked herring.
- Eat five servings of vegetables today. A serving is ½ cup so it’s not as hard as it sounds. Select a dark-green vegetable and a red or orange vegetable.
- Avoid processed foods all day.
- Avoid sugary foods and drinks all day.
- Don’t eat red meat or processed meat (such as bacon, deli meat) today. Choose another protein alternative.
- Eat a dried bean dish for dinner. In the winter, try a hearty lentil stew. In the summer try a whole wheat pasta salad with chickpeas, cucumber, black olives, and feta.
- Substitute whole wheat or whole grains for refined white flour. Choose whole wheat bread for your sandwich or whole wheat tortillas instead of white. Explore alternatives to white rice, such as quinoa, barley, or farro.
- Walk for 20 minutes. Put on your walking shoes, go outside, and walk in one direction for 10 minutes. Then, turn around and walk back. If the weather is rainy, too cold, or too hot, go to a big box store, such as Walmart or Home Depot, and walk around for 20 minutes. You can park in the corner of the parking lot and count the time you spend walking towards the store.
- Healthy fats (2 to 3 servings)
By Brenda Schoolfield a freelance medical writer who splits her time between Austin and Seattle.