How does what I eat affect my heart?
The food you eat can affect the way blood flows through your heart and arteries. A diet high in "bad" fats (saturated and trans fats) and cholesterol can gradually cause buildup (called plaque) in your arteries. That buildup slows down blood flow and can eventually block your arteries. If the blockage happens in an artery that carries blood to the heart muscle, a heart attack can occur. If the blockage happens in an artery that carries blood to the brain, a stroke can occur. The right diet can help keep your arteries clear and will reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Keeping your heart healthy by making healthier food choices isn't as hard as it sounds!
Tips for a heart-healthy diet
- Eat less saturated and trans fats. These fats are found in foods such as butter, coconut and palm oil, saturated or hydrogenated vegetable fats such as Crisco, animal fats in meats and fats in whole milk dairy products.
- Whole-grain breads are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates, so choose these breads instead of white breads for sandwiches and as additions to meals.
- Eat fruits and vegetables, which are naturally low in fat. Not only do they add flavor and variety to your diet, but they also contain fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Baking, broiling and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare meat and poultry. Trim any outside fat or skin before cooking. Lean cuts can be pan-broiled or stir-fried. Use either a nonstick pan or nonstick cooking spray instead of butter or margarine.
- Dry beans, peas and lentils offer protein and fiber without the cholesterol and fat that meats have. Once in a while, try substituting beans for meat in a favorite recipe, such as lasagna or chili.
- Choose low- or nonfat versions of milk, yogurt and cheese products. Eat no more than 4 egg yolks a week (use egg whites or egg substitutes).
- Visit our “How to Make Healthier Food Choices” handout for more tips.
How much should I weigh?
Talk to your family doctor about your ideal weight, because every person is different. If you're overweight, the extra pounds put extra stress on your heart. Losing weight can help your heart stay healthy. If you need to lose weight, remember that losing just 10% of your body weight will reduce your risks for diabetes and heart disease.
Why is exercise good for my heart?
Exercise makes your heart stronger, which helps it pump more blood with each heartbeat. This delivers more oxygen to your body, which helps it function more efficiently.
Exercise can also lower blood pressure, reduce your risk of heart disease and reduce levels of LDL ("bad" cholesterol), which can clog the arteries and can cause a heart attack. At the same time, exercise can raise levels of HDL ("good" cholesterol), which helps protect against a heart attack by carrying fatty deposits out of the arteries.
When combined with a healthy diet, exercise can speed up weight loss. Regular exercise also helps you burn calories faster, even when you're sitting still, because exercise builds lean muscle (which burns more calories than fat).
What's the best type of exercise for my heart?
Aerobic exercise causes you to breathe more deeply and makes your heart work harder to pump blood. Aerobic exercise also raises your heart rate (which also burns calories). Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, jogging, running, dancing, swimming and bicycling.
How much exercise do I need?
In general, if you haven't been exercising, try to work up to 30 minutes, 4 to 6 times a week. Your doctor may recommend a different exercise regimen based on your health. To prevent injuries, it is best to alternate exercise days with rest days to prevent injuries.
How will I fit exercise into my busy schedule?
There are lots of ways to raise your heart rate during your regular day. Some examples include:
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Walk during a coffee break or lunch.
- Walk to work, or park at the end of the parking lot so you have to walk farther.
- Walk more briskly.
- Do housework at a quicker pace and more often (for example, vacuuming every day).
- Rake leaves, push the lawn mower or do other yard work.
Some information adapted from Physicians Guide to Outpatient Nutrition, by Sylvia A. Moore, Ph.D., R.D., F.A.D.A. and John P. Nagle, M.P.A. American Academy of Family Physicians, Leawood, KS. 2001.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff