No matter our size, our heart is at the core of our physical and emotional wellbeing. The Center for Disease Control’s latest statistics (2017-2018) put the national adult obesity rate at 42.4%. Obesity is a known cause of cardiovascular disease (CVD), which is responsible for 23.4% of all adult deaths in the United States, killing more people than cancer and suicide combined.
What Are The Causes of Heart Health Issues?
Healthy Vs Unhealthy Fats
Many people tend to equate consuming fats with weight gain, and not irrationally; fats provide 9 calories per gram, more than double the punch of the same portion of carbohydrates or protein (4 calories per gram). However, not all fats are the same. Fats are linked to our body’s production of cholesterol, which may determine our risk for CVD.
Saturated fats are fat molecules that do not contain double bonds in between their carbon molecules; they are therefore “saturated” with hydrogen. These fats are solid at room temperature and increase the production of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), commonly referred to as “bad cholesterol”. LDLs cause arterial buildup and blockage, reducing blood and oxygen flow to the heart, increasing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Saturated fats are found in red meat (beef, lamb, pork), poultry skin, lard, and dairy products (butter, milk, cheeses, creams).
Unsaturated fats contain double bonds between carbon molecules. These fats include omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, both critical for bodily processes, and both obtained from dietary sources because our cells cannot produce them. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, and increase our percentage of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), or “good cholesterol), which is able to flow through the bloodstream, binding with and carrying with it the LDLs and plaque away from the heart and towards the liver. Sufficient consumption of these healthy fats is associated with a decreased risk of CVD. Unsaturated fats are found in avocados, nuts, seeds, olives, coconut, fatty fish (salmon, trout, mackerel), and the associated healthy oils (olive, coconut, avocado, sesame, fish).
The third grouping of cholesterols are triglycerides. The body converts energy that is not used right away into triglycerides and stores it inside fat cells, where it is later released by hormones when there is an energy deficit. High triglyceride levels create more fat and plaque deposits within the arterial walls, which in turn decreases the flow of oxygen and blood. This may contribute to arteriosclerosis, the thickening of the arterial walls, and increase the risk of obesity and CVD.
Other triggers of cardiovascular disease can include sugar, alcohol, stress, and lack of exercise. Sugars may be hard to spot on labels; there are at least 61 unique names for them. Some of the most common include glucose, fructose, dextrose, galactose, maltose, dextrin, and sucrose. Sugars may also hide in carbohydrate-dense foods like breads and pastas, syrups (such as maple syrup, agave, and honey), boxed foods (cereals, granola bars), canned fruits, yogurts, juices, and sports drinks.
Alcohol metabolizes within the body to sugar and is stored in our fat cells, increasing our triglyceride and LDL levels. At the same time that this process increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes, it also degrades the liver and inhibits its ability to detoxify our system. Consistent consumption of alcohol may also release free radicals and stress hormones, causing premature aging, and depletion of B-vitamins, energy levels, metabolism function, and brain function. Many alcoholic beverages are mixed with sugary juices, increasing their potential for harm. Reducing consumption, and mindful selection of drinks is important not just for CVD prevention, but for overall health.
How to Improve Your Heart Health & Prevent Future Issues
Diet is Everything
The first step to preventing, and even reversing the risk of heart disease is shifting the diet to include more plant and healthy fat sources of energy, avoiding processed foods, sugars, and LDLs. The detoxifying effect of HDLs, coupled with lower toxin and sugar intake can allow our liver to flush out harmful LDLs and plaque, even after years of buildup.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants and fiber and are naturally anti-inflammatory. Protecting our bodies from chronic low-level inflammation and harmful free radicals helps our heart health, and increased consumption of fiber from natural foods helps to flush cholesterol out through regular bowel movements.
A Calm Heart is a Happy Heart
Stress levels are raised by the consumption of alcohol, in addition to many personal and environmental factors. Chronic stress raises blood sugar levels and inflammation, and increases the risk of nearly every disease. Effectively managing stress through activities that promote effective energy flow and relaxation can lower your risk for CVD. To destress, try meditating (many apps can be helpful, namely Calm, Headspace, or Insighttimer), reading, writing, or taking a walk, especially through nature, as the color green has a marked calming effect on neurochemical equilibrium. Try to decrease your use of electronics and spend more time with family and friends.
Physical activity is also an effective mechanism to cope with stress for most people and is critical to maintaining a healthy heart. Strength training increases muscle and reduces body fat. Sweating improves circulation, flushes toxins, and gets your lymphatic fluid moving, boosting immunity and lowering your risk for chronic disease. A good guideline is to incorporate at least 30-60 minutes of physical activity into your life, 4-5 days per week. It can be anything–yoga, running, swimming, hiking, walking, kickboxing, cycling–whatever increases your heart rate, gets you moving and breaks a sweat.
You’ve got a good heart: show it some love!