Photo: Heart-Shaped Bowls with Grains and Rice

by Tandis Bishop, RD

Reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease doesn’t mean you have to completely revamp your lifestyle. There are many simple changes you can make in your day that can have a huge impact on your heart health.  

It’s important to first recognize the benefits of small healthy changes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Heart disease and stroke are among the most widespread and costly health problems facing our nation today, even though they are also among the most preventable. Heart disease and stroke are the first and third leading causes of death for both women and men. They are also major causes of illness and disability and are estimated to cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars annually in health care expenditures.” And for those with diabetes, the risk of heart disease and stroke increases by up to 68 percent.

Here are some simple ways to achieve better health and help protect your heart:

Eat a Balanced Breakfast

The importance of eating balanced breakfasts cannot be stressed enough. You don’t want to start your day on empty! Eating breakfast has been linked to healthy weight control, improved energy, and a lower risk of heart disease. 1

Include healthy proteins and fiber in your breakfast, such as: oatmeal with chia seeds and fruit; Greek yogurt with granola and nuts; eggless tofu scramble with veggies; or almond butter on sprouted-grain bread with fruit.

Keep Moving

Simply moving more can make a valuable impact on cardiovascular health. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park further away so you can walk to your destination, or take a short 10 minute walk during your lunch break (keep an extra pair of sneakers at work). Constantly getting up and moving instead of sitting at the desk for long hours can help burn more calories and keep you fit.

Plan Ahead

Preparing more meals at home can help you have control over the food you eat and save you money. Even if you can only prepare easy meals a few times a week, it is still better than eating out regularly. Make a shopping list and stock up on healthy food options including vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and whole grains. It will be easier to choose better meals and snacks when your pantry, cupboards and fridge are filled with healthy food… and less of the empty-calorie foods such as candy, baked goods made with refined flour, oily chips, or sugary cereals and sodas. Planning ahead will prevent you from finding yourself starving at lunch time or dinner time and trying to figure out where to eat, which often ends up with not-so-healthy choices like fast food or “whatever” convenient foods are at the house.

Dine Out Healthier

Follow these tips when ordering a meal:

  • Opt for smaller portions when available; avoid “super-sized, large, or full” sized meals. If dining with a companion, try sharing the meal.
  • Avoid the extra bread, beverages, and appetizers served before the meal because they are often sources of extra calories, fat and sodium.
  • Ask for salad dressings, gravies, and butter to be served on the side so you can control the amount you eat.
  • Choose grilled, boiled, or baked dishes rather than fried. Try to order dishes that include vegetables or salads.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask for healthy substitutions such as:  vinaigrette instead of a creamy mayonnaise dressing; steamed veggies or green salad instead of fries or onion rings; avocado instead of bacon or sausage bits.

Get Your ZZZs

Adequate sleep has a tremendous effect on your heart and health. According to the Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Letter, poor sleep has been linked with high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, heart failure, heart attack and stroke, diabetes, and obesity. Lack of sleep can cause inflammatory responses and alter your metabolism, which can contribute to weight gain, diabetes and heart disease.

Sleep deprivation also triggers the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which releases “fight-or-flight” stress hormones that raise blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar.2, 3 Symptoms related to cardiovascular disease such as sleep apnea and chest pain (angina) can cause sleep disturbance.

Try to make sleep a priority and aim for 7-8 hours each night.4 Check out the National Sleep Foundation for helpful tips on getting some shut-eye.

Indulge in a Little Dark Chocolate, in Moderation

Dark chocolate has a higher concentration of cocoa than milk chocolate, and cocoa (or its raw form, “cacao”) contains a high amount of antioxidants, which may help protect your cardiovascular system. Flavanols are the main types of flavonoids (plant nutrient antioxidants) found in dark chocolate and cacao. These substances appear to help improve vascular health by lowering blood pressure, improving blood sugar (insulin resistance) and blood flow, and reducing the stiffness in arteries linked to atherosclerosis. 5,6

Not all types of chocolate are healthy, however. Most commercial chocolates are highly processed and loaded with sugar. The more the chocolate is processed (through things like alkalizing, roasting, etc.), the more flavanols are lost. Natural cocoa or its unprocessed raw form called cacao has a very strong pungent flavor and is actually not sweet. So before you start indulging in chocolate cake or a cup of chocolate milk, it’s important to understand that the benefit comes from the least processed cocoa or cacao. Opt for dark chocolate bars with cacao content 60% or greater and lightly sweetened with organic sugar.

Footnotes: 

1 Cahill, L. et al. Prospective Study of Breakfast Eating and Incident Coronary Heart Disease in a Cohort of Male US Health Professionals. Circulation. 2013; 128: 337-343
2 Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publications. Poor sleep habits: heart disease and sleep apnea. 2007. Available at: http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/sleep-habits
3 Mullington, J. et al. Sleep Loss and Inflammation.  Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. Oct 2010; 24(5): 775–784.
4 National Heart Lung & Blood Institute:  How much sleep is enough? Retrieved on January 19, 2015 from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sdd/howmuch
5 D. Esser, M. Mars, E. Oosterink, A. Stalmach, M. Muller, L. A. Afman. Dark chocolate consumption improves leukocyte adhesion factors and vascular function in overweight men. The FASEB Journal, 2013; 28 (3): 1464 DOI: 10.1096/fj.13-239384
6 Grassi, D. et al. Cocoa Reduces Blood Pressure and Insulin Resistance and Improves Endothelium-Dependent Vasodilation in Hypertensives. Hypertension. 2005; 46: 398-405