Lower Heart Disease Risk with Simple Changes

Photo: Fruit and Vegetables in the Shape of a Heart

Welcome to American Heart Month this February! With the holiday feasts behind us, and perhaps a resolution or two underway, now is the perfect time to focus on heart health. As the novelty of a new year fades, and the rainy season sets in, many of us need a little added encouragement to stay healthy and well. Focusing on the health of our hearts is a great way to keep our other health goals on track, since cardiovascular health is supported by so many other factors, including regular exercise and a low-fat, plant-based diet.

This year, the American Heart Association is focused on the “simple seven” steps that help a person achieve cardiovascular health. Even simple, small changes can make a big difference in a person’s life, and the AHA is committed to helping people take small steps in the right direction. The seven goals laid out by the AHA are: 1) don’t smoke, 2) maintain a healthy weight, 3) engage in regular physical activity, 4) eat a healthy diet, 5) manage blood pressure, 6) take charge of cholesterol and 7) keep blood sugar, or glucose, at healthy levels.1

The AHA’s “simple seven” address the seven modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Tobacco use, overweight and obesity, lack of physical activity, a diet high in saturated fat, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar or diabetes all contribute to the risk for cardiovascular disease.2 Perhaps because all of these risk factors are deeply ingrained in Western culture and diet, cardiovascular disease has remained as the leading cause of death in the United States since the 1930’s.3

Thankfully, as with many strategies for health, these seven goals are easier to accomplish together. For instance, quitting smoking helps to lower your blood pressure,4 engaging in regular physical activity helps to maintain a healthy weight5 and eating a low-fat, plant-based diet helps maintain stable blood sugar levels,6 among many other benefits. The key is to take small steps to address each one of these goals, and over time you may find that major lifestyle changes are within reach.

If you don’t smoke or you already get regular physical exercise, then some of these changes may not apply to you. But the one factor that applies to everyone is diet – all of us eat multiple times a day, and we could all use more whole grains, fruits and vegetables in our diet. Studies have demonstrated that a low-fat, plant-based diet can protect against heart disease, and even reverse it in some cases.7, 8 Well-balanced vegetarian and vegan diets have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol, which is the type of cholesterol responsible for clogged arteries.9 Adopting a well-balanced vegetarian or vegan diet composed of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds is a huge step towards protecting against heart disease.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has identified four possible explanations for why vegetarianism is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Besides lower blood cholesterol, vegetarians have also been found to have a lower body mass index on average. In addition, vegetarians and vegans tend to consume less saturated fat and more healthy unsaturated fat, fiber and phytochemicals found in plants.10 As with many chronic conditions, there are multiple factors that put a person at risk for cardiovascular disease. Thankfully, making small changes towards a healthier diet can help address numerous factors at once. So this year, consider taking a stand for your heart and choose a few small changes that you can make to incorporate more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes in place of animal foods. Whatever you choose, your heart will thank you!

  1. American Heart Association. (2013). Life's simple seven. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/My-Life-Check---Lifes-Simple-7…
  2. Global atlas on cardiovascular disease prevention and control. In (2011). S. Mendis, P. Puska & B. Norrving (Eds.), Geneva: World Health Organization (in collaboration with the World Heart Federation and World Stroke Organization). Retrieved from http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2011/9789241564373_eng.pdf
  3. Levy, R. (1981). The decline in cardiovascular disease mortality. Annual Review of Public Health, 2, 49-70. doi: 10.1146/annurev.pu.02.050181.000405
  4. Mahmud, A., & Feely, J. Effect of smoking on arterial stiffness and pulse pressure amplification. Hypertension. 2003: 41(1), 183-187. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12511550
  5. Jeffery, R., Wing, R., Sherwood, N., & Tate, D. Physical activity and weight loss: does prescribing higher physical activity goals improve outcome?. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003:78(4), 684-689. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/4/684.short
  6. Barnard, N., Cohen, J., Jenkins, D., Turner-McGrievy, G., Gloede, L., Jaster, B., Seidl, K., & Green, A. A low-fat vegan diet improves glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in a randomized clinical trial in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2006: 29(8), 1777-1783. doi: 10.2337/dc06-0606
  7. Fraser GE. Associations between diet and cancer, ischemic heart disease, and all-cause mortality in non-Hispanic white California Seventh-day Adventists. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70(suppl):532S-538S.
  8. Ornish D, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, Brown SE, Gould KL, Merritt TA, Sparler S, Armstrong WT, Ports TA, Kirkeeide RL, Hogeboom C, Brand RJ. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease.JAMA. 1998;280(23):2,001-2,007.
  9. Maddox, T. (2012, June 21). Ldl cholesterol: The bad cholesterol. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/ldl-cholesterol-the-bad-cholesterol…
  10. American Dietetic Association. Craig WJ, Mangels AR; American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:166-1282