According to recent statistics from the American Heart Association, more than 874,000 Americans died of cardiovascular disease in 2019, and it remains the leading cause of death in the United States. The pandemic may further exacerbate poor cardiovascular outcomes, as many have reported eating unhealthy foods, drinking more alcohol and delaying medical care over the past two years—all of which can negatively impact heart health.
February is American Heart Month, a time to focus on reducing your risk for hypertension (also known as high blood pressure) and cardiovascular disease by making heart-healthy behaviors and choices part of your daily routine. In this Q&A, Jessica Garay, assistant professor of nutrition and food studies in the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, offers practical tips to make heart health a priority for you and your family.
What are some basic nutritional strategies people can follow to maintain good heart health?
“For good heart health, it’s important to have healthy blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. Your diet can definitely impact those values. Eating soluble fiber, which is found in foods such as oats, beans, fruits and vegetables, has been shown to help lower cholesterol levels. Research has also suggested that a daily intake of ground flaxseed can lower cholesterol levels. Avoiding highly processed foods that contain excess salt is also recommended.”
Does any research indicate that specialty diets (i.e., vegan, vegetarian, or low-carbohydrate) are beneficial to cardiovascular health?
“The best overall diet for reducing high blood pressure is called the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet. This eating pattern focuses on foods that are good sources of potassium, calcium and magnesium, while avoiding foods high in added sugars, saturated fat and sodium (salt). The Mediterranean diet is also highly rated for overall heart health. While animal foods are a source of dietary cholesterol, our bodies also make cholesterol. Following a well-balanced vegan or vegetarian diet can certainly lead to lower cholesterol intake, but this does not always translate to lower blood cholesterol levels.”
What are some practical tips for busy individuals or families who want to incorporate more heart-healthy eating behaviors into their lives?
“Check out the Healthy Monday campaigns, including Meatless Monday and Move-It Monday. These can be great motivators to not only make healthier food choices to start your week, but also to get moving. These days there are a variety of options offering convenient, healthy food for busy individuals and families. Look for pre-cut or prepped fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, or try a meal delivery service to provide some new heart-healthy recipe ideas.”
How does stress management fit into the picture?
“Stress can also lead to high blood pressure. Research has shown that more heart attacks occur on Mondays, presumably related to stress from returning to work. Engaging in a variety of stress reduction techniques, including exercise, meditation and other forms of self-care, can help to improve overall health status, but specifically heart health.”
Source: The American Heart Association