What you eat and drink, your activity level, how you cope with stress and other individual lifestyle factors help determine the health of your heart. Heart disease is a progressive condition that can start early in life but can also be prevented or controlled by making smart lifestyle choices. Follow a heart-healthy diet, get plenty of exercise, do what you can to reduce stress and live a life of moderation and you will be well on your way to maintaining a healthy heart.
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Eat a Low-fat Diet
A heart-healthy diet is low in total fat, saturated fats and trans fats that raise blood cholesterol levels. To cut saturated fat, choose lean cuts of meat and remove skin from poultry before eating. Choose low-fat and fat-free dairy products. To avoid trans fats, check the ingredient list on all commercially processed food products, especially baked goods and crackers, and avoid any that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Fiber helps lower blood cholesterol levels and helps you feel full, so you are less likely to overeat. A high-fiber diet contains nutrient-packed foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole-grain cereals and breads and legumes, such as black beans, lima beans, chickpeas and lentils.
Cholesterol is found only in animal products, such as meat, poultry, dairy products and eggs. Lean and low-fat foods can still be high in cholesterol. Check Nutrition Facts labels to keep track of the cholesterol in your food and consume no more than 300 mg daily.
Eat fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and albacore tuna at least twice a week. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish and in fish oil supplements, can lower blood triglycerides (fats), slow the buildup of plaque in the arteries, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of sudden death from heart attack, according to the American Heart Association.
Being overweight increases your risk of developing high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides (fats), low levels of healthful HDL cholesterol and heart disease. Losing weight decreases your risk of these and other health conditions that affect your heart, such as diabetes and sleep apnea (obstructed breathing).
Get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day, or at least on most days. Regular aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, bike riding, stair climbing, swimming, jumping rope, circuit training and dancing keeps your heart fit, raises your levels of protective HDL cholesterol and can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. Being active at home and at work rather than just sitting for most of the day also contributes to heart fitness.
Although a glass of red wine contains antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of heart disease and alcohol can cause a slight raise in HDL cholesterol levels, drinking too much alcohol can increase your blood pressure, your triglycerides and your calorie count. Moderate drinking is defined as up to one average-sized drink daily for women and two for men.
Many different chemicals found in tobacco smoke can damage your heart, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic. Smoking decreases your body's supply of oxygen and causes blood vessels to constrict. Simply cutting back or switching to low-tar and low-nicotine brands of cigarettes is not enough to significantly reduce your risk of heart disease. When you quit smoking, your risk of developing heart disease starts to drop immediately and decreases dramatically within the the first year.
The way you handle both personal and professional stress may affect your heart directly, or it may affect other risk factors that lead to heart disease, such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels, physical activity levels and eating, drinking and smoking habits. If you feel overwhelmed by stressful events or respond to stress with poor lifestyle choices, speak to a health care practitioner about healthier ways to cope.
See your doctor for an annual physical that includes blood pressure and cholesterol testing and monitoring. Take any medications prescribed to control blood pressure and cholesterol levels as directed or speak to your doctor about alternatives.