Heart disease is America’s number-one killer. But just because it’s a major health risk does not necessarily mean that you must make major lifestyle changes to avoid it. Here are 14 simple and inexpensive ways to have a healthier heart…
Doable Diet Tips
1. Don’t eat in the evening. Research suggests that the heart (and digestive system) benefits greatly from taking an 11-to-12-hour break from food every night. One study found that men who indulge in midnight snacks are 55% more likely to suffer from heart disease than men who don’t. So if you plan to eat breakfast at 7 am, consider your kitchen closed after 7 or 8 pm.
Warning: You cannot produce the same health benefits by snacking at night and then skipping breakfast. This might create an 11-to-12-hour break from eating, but skipping breakfast actually increases the risk for heart attack and/or death—by 27%, according to one study. Our bodies and minds often are under considerable stress in the morning—that’s when heart attack risk is greatest. Skipping the morning meal only adds to this stress.
2. Use apple pie spice as a topping on oatmeal and fruit. Some people enjoy it in coffee, too. This spice combo, which contains cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice, has been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels and lower the risk for heart disease.
3. Take your time with your tea. Tea contains compounds called flavonoids that have been shown to significantly reduce the risk for heart disease—green tea is best of all. But you get the full benefits only if you have the patience to let the tea leaves steep—that is, soak in hot water—for at least three to five minutes before drinking.
4. Fill up on salad. It’s no secret that being overweight is bad for the heart. But most people don’t realize that they can lose weight without going hungry. Salad can make the stomach feel full without a lot of calories. But don’t add nonvegetable ingredients such as cheese, meat and egg to salads…and opt for balsamic or red wine vinegar dressing—they are rich in nutrients, including artery-healing resveratrol.
As a bonus, vegetables…and fruits…contain nutrients that are great for the heart regardless of your weight—so great that eating a plant-rich diet could improve your blood pressure just as much as taking blood pressure medication. In fact, one study found that increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables from 1.5 to eight servings per day decreases the risk for heart attack or stroke by 30%.
One strategy: Become a vegetarian for breakfast and lunch. That way you still can enjoy meat at dinner, but your overall vegetable consumption will be increased.
5. Marinate meat before grilling it. Grilling meat triggers a dramatic increase in its “advanced glycation end products” (AGEs), which stiffen blood vessels and raise blood pressure, among other health drawbacks. If you’re not willing to give up your grill, marinate meat for at least 30 minutes before cooking it. Marinating helps keep meat moist, which can slash AGE levels in half. An effective marinade for this purpose is beer, though lemon juice or vinegar works well, too. You can add herbs and oil if you wish.
6. Sprinkle Italian seasoning mix onto salads, potatoes and soups. This zesty mix contains antioxidant-rich herbs such as oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme, which studies suggest reduce the risk for heart disease and cancer.
7. Avoid foods that contain dangerous additives. There are so many food additives that it’s virtually impossible to keep track of them all. Focus on avoiding foods that list any of the following seven among their ingredients—each carries heart-related health risks. The seven are aspartame…BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)…BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)…saccharin…sodium nitrate…sodium sulfate…and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
8. Savor the first three bites of everything you eat. When people eat too fast, they also tend to eat too much. One way to slow down your eating is to force yourself to pay close attention to what you are eating. If you cannot do this for an entire meal or snack, at least do it for the first three mouthfuls of each food you consume. Chew these initial bites slowly and thoroughly. Give the food and its flavor your undivided attention, and you will end up eating less.
9. Prepare your lunch the night before if you won’t be home for your midday meal. People who intend to make their lunch in the morning often are in too much of a rush to do so…then wind up resorting to fast food.
10. Buy organic when it counts. Higher pesticide levels in the blood predict higher cholesterol levels as well as cardiovascular disease. Organic food is free of pesticide—but it can be expensive. The smart compromise is to buy organic when it counts most—when traditionally grown produce is most likely to contain pesticide residue. According to the Environmental Working Group, the foods most likely to contain pesticide residue are apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, collard greens, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, kale, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, summer squash and sweet bell peppers.
Important: If your options are eating conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables or not eating fruits and vegetables at all, definitely consume the conventionally grown produce. The health risks from small amounts of pesticide residue are much lower than the health risks from not eating produce.
Easy Lifestyle Habits
11. Stand two to five minutes each hour. Recent research suggests that sitting for extended periods is horrible for your heart. Sitting slows your metabolism and reduces your ability to process glucose and cholesterol. But standing for as little as two to five minutes each hour seems to significantly reduce these health consequences (more standing is even better). Stand while making phone calls or during commercials. Buy a “standing desk,” then stand when you use your computer.
12. Take walks after meals. Walking is good anytime, but walks after meals have special health benefits, particularly after rich desserts. A 20-minute postmeal stroll significantly improves the body’s ability to manage blood sugar. Maintaining healthful blood sugar levels reduces risk for coronary artery blockage.
13. Exercise in brief but intense bursts. Research suggests that exercising as intensely as possible for 20 seconds…resting for 10 seconds…then repeating this seven more times provides nearly the same benefits for the heart as a far longer but less intense workout. Try this with an exercise bike, rowing machine, elliptical machine or any other form of exercise. Do an Internet search for “Tabata training” to learn more. There are free apps that can help you time these intervals. Download Tabata Stopwatch in the iTunes store if you use an Apple device…or Tabata Timer for HIIT from Google Play if you use an Android device.
Caution: Talk to your doctor. High-intensity training could be dangerous if you have a preexisting health condition.
14. Get sufficient sleep. One study found that the rates of heart disease for people who get seven to eight hours of sleep a night are nearly half those of people who get too little or too much sleep. If you struggle to sleep through the night, read our Guide to Better Sleep…No Sleeping Pills Needed.