A Matter Of the Heart: Prioritize Your Heart Healthy Diet to Live a Longer, Happier, Healthier Life
Taking your heart for granted can be catastrophic, literally, which is why a heart healthy diet should be high on your list of priorities. There are many things that can happen to us as human beings and many circumstances from which we can survive and live a happy, healthy life. However, no one can survive without their heart. Making heart healthy foods (also a low cholesterol diet) part of your everyday lifestyle and mindset is crucial to living a long, productive, and fulfilling life.
The Basic Mechanics of Your Body Needs a Healthy Heart
Our body is made up of a network of simple and complex cells that create every aspect of how our body works. For simplicity’s sake, we are like a living computer. Our similarities include:
- Using electrical signals to send messages
- Having a memory that can grow
- The ability to adapt and learn
- The capability of being damaged
- The need for energy
- The ability to change and be modified
- Being infiltrated by a virus that lowers (or eliminates) functionality
- Whatever goes in is processed and causes either a desired or undesired result
- We have more control over the outcomes, results, successes and failures than we realize
Our nervous system is the communications center full of electrical wiring, our brain is the central control panel that contains our memory, data, and the multi-faceted instruction manual for how we are to properly function, and our heart is the power-source and processor that pumps our lifeblood to supply every organ, bone, and tissue with the oxygen and energy it needs to live, think, move, and breathe.
The rhythmic ‘thu-thump’ of our heart is created by the electrical impulses that travel through the billions of neurons (specialized cells that transmit nerve impulses) that communicate and send messages from our brain (our central control panel), to every other cell in our body telling it what to do and how to function properly. When the heart is damaged with disease, our whole body suffers.
What Characterizes a Healthy Heart?
When you maintain a heart healthy diet, your heart is able to properly process and pump your blood throughout your body at the exact rate your body needs for the current activity at hand. When you exercise, are doing laborious work or physical activity, your body is using more energy so the heart will beat faster to put more oxygen and energy into the body. When you are at rest, your heartbeat will slow down to conserve energy and store it for use later.
A healthy heart is characterized by:
- A healthy electrical system that precisely controls the timing of your heartbeat causing your heart’s chambers (your atria and ventricles) to contract
- A steady heart rate that matches your current level of activity (between 60 and 100 beats per minute at rest)
- A regulated rhythm that is synchronized with the pumping action of all four heart chambers
- Blood pressure is regulated, with the optimal blood pressure being less than 120/80 mm Hg (systolic pressure is 120 AND diastolic pressure is less than 80)
- Levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the bloodstream are maintained at a healthy level
- Glucose(sugar) levels are regulated
With a healthy heart, you are more likely to experience a more satisfying life. A healthy heart generally means you are maintaining a good heart-healthy diet which will help you maintain a better lifestyle and weight range that encourages healthy activities. When we stay active and engaged, it will keep your mind, heart and body on track to living a fuller, more fulfilling life.
What Characterizes an Unhealthy Heart?
Heart disease is the number one characteristic of an unhealthy heart and is the number one leading cause of death for both men and women. In the United States alone, someone has a heart attack every 42 seconds, and every minute, someone dies from an event related to heart disease.
Risk factors for heart disease include:
- High blood pressure
- High LDL cholesterol
- Overweight and obesity
- Poor diet
- Physical inactivity
- Excessive alcohol use
The CDC reports that 49% of Americans have at least one of the top three risk factors listed above. With such a prevalent problem, it is critical that a higher priority is placed on your own personal heart health, and the heart health of your family. Heart disease does not have to take so many lives, but it is up to each individual person to make the effort to change how these statistics play out in the future.
Symptoms of an Unhealthy Heart
If you suspect you may have an unhealthy heart, it is not too late to begin a heart healthy diet. Please continue reading to see how easy it is to improve your heart health with a simple heart diet (or cardiac diet). However, there are serious symptoms you need to be aware of, as not all warning signs are clear. This is especially true if you are age 60 or older, and have one or more of the risk factors above. WebMD lists these 11 heart symptoms that you should never ignore:
- Discomfort in your chest – this could be caused by a blocked artery or an active heart attack. The discomfort you feel may be pain, tightness, or extreme pressure in your chest. If these symptoms are severe and do not go away after a few minutes, call 9-1-1. However, it is important to remember that you can also have a heart attack without chest pain, which is more common among women.
- Indigestion, heartburn, nausea, or stomach pain – during a heart attack, more women are likely to report these types of symptoms than men.
- Pain that spreads to your arm – this typically starts from the chest and moves outward.
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded – if you have chest pain and shortness of breath while feeling lightheaded or dizzy, call your doctor or 9-1-1 immediately.
- Jaw or throat pin – this by itself isn’t typically related to a heart issue, but when combined with other symptoms and risk factors, it can be significant. If pressure in your chest spreads up into your jaw or throat, it could be a sign of a heart attack, and you will need medical attention immediately.
- Exhaustion – if you are not able to do things that used to be easy to do (like climbing stairs or brining in the groceries), call your doctor and get checked out right away. Unexplained weakness and exhaustion for days at a time could be a symptom of a heart attack, especially for women.
- Snoring – unusually loud snoring, gasping, or choking while sleeping can be a sign of sleep apnea (which means you stop breathing periodically while you sleep). This puts a lot of extra stress on your heart. If that is the case, ask your doctor about it. After conducting a sleep study and getting diagnosed, there are measures that can be taken to smooth out your breathing while you sleep (like a CPAP machine).
- Sweating – if you break out into a cold sweat for no apparent reason, it could be the sign of a heart attack. If this happens along with any other symptoms listed here, call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.
- Coughing that won’t go away – this in itself isn’t an indication of heart trouble, but when it is accompanied by other symptoms and risk factors, you need to pay attention. If the heart is unable to keep up with the body’s demands, it will leak blood back into the lungs that your body will then want to cough up. If your cough produces white or pink mucus, there is a possibility that it could be a sign of heart failure.
- Swollen legs, feet, and ankles – this could mean your heart isn’t pumping blood as effectively as it should. When blood backs up in the veins, it can cause bloating. Heart failure also makes it harder for kidney’s to remove extra water and sodium from your body, which can also cause bloating. A low cholesterol diet with heart healthy foods will help reduce your sodium intake that could also be causing you to bloat.
- Irregular Heart Beat – now and then your heart may race or skip a beat when you get excited, but if it happens often and randomly, it is important to tell your doctor. Sometimes a fix is as simple as getting better sleep, or having less caffeine. However, it has also been known to be a symptom of atrial fibrillation that would need specific treatment, so be sure to have your doctor check it out.
It is always better to be safe, than sorry. There are several recommended health screenings you should ask your doctor about. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and are at risk for having heart disease, please see your doctor and get it checked out. There are so many opportunities for you to improve your health if you just take the time to be aware of what’s going on with your body. Don’t ignore symptoms, and don’t ignore the benefits of simple lifestyle changes that are simple to include a heart healthy diet!
How Does a Heart Healthy Diet Really Improve Heart Health?
Basic computer programming can be broken down into its most simplistic element by saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.” The effort we put into data and programming a computer to perform certain tasks, operate certain programs in specific ways, and maintain an acceptable level of functionality, is the same effort we need to consider for our own bodies and minds. If we put garbage into our bodies, it will trash up our systems and we can expect garbage to come out, resulting in a lack of desired functionality.
Eating certain foods can increase your risk for heart disease, just like eating other foods can reduce your risk for heart disease. Yes, it can be difficult to change your eating habits, but it’s even tougher to feel deprived of a thriving life because of poor choices. Just like computers, we can be reprogrammed with new life, new data, and new experiences, by making new, healthier, better choices!
Having a heart healthy diet will help prevent heart disease. When you are not conscious of what you ingest, the typical response is to overindulge in foods that damage your heart, veins and arteries, which are your life source and pathway for oxygen-rich blood to reach vital organs and every other tissue in your body that enables you to function.
The food you eat will affect the way blood flows through your body. An unhealthy diet high in fat and cholesterol can cause a buildup of plaque in your arteries that will slow down the blood flow and block smaller arteries. When blockage happens in an artery that carries blood to the heart, the heart muscle can die which is what causes a heart attack. If blockage happens in an artery that carries blood to the brain, the brain can die, which is called a stroke (or a brain attack).
A heart healthy diet is your best weapon to fight heart disease because one of main benefits is that it helps to keep your arteries clear. It’s not as hard as you think to incorporate a heart healthy diet (also known as a low cholesterol diet or a cardiac diet) that includes heart healthy foods and heart healthy snacks!
What is a Heart Healthy Diet?
A heart healthy diet will consist of an appropriate number of calories taken in by eating foods compatible with a heart diet designed to prevent heart disease.
Some top heart healthy foods include:
- Salmon (as well as tuna, trout, sardines, and mackerel) for omega-3 and fatty acids which have an anti-clotting effect for your blood
- Walnuts provide the good HDL cholesterol your body needs
- Raspberries (also strawberries, blueberries and blackberries) deliver fiber, antioxidants and vitamin C to your body
- Fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt (also bananas, oranges and potatoes) are all a good source of potassium, the importance of which is discussed in more detail below
- Chickpeas (also eggplant, okra, apples and pears) provide your body with soluble fiber that helps lower your bad LDL cholesterol
- Oatmeal (other choices include barley, shiitake mushrooms and seaweed) provides another type of fiber that can lower your bad LDL cholesterol
- Olive oil (or canola and safflower oil) will help limit saturated fat and keep your bad cholesterol levels lower
- Dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) including natural cocoa powder and cacao nibs will get you less sugar (sugar raises your risk of heart disease) and more flavanols which can help support healthy circulation
- Avocados (or nuts and sunflower oil) provide the “good fat” that helps lower your bad cholesterol, with an included anti-inflammatory benefit
- Unsalted almond butter (or other nut butters) is a great source of fatty acids the body needs
- Red grapes (or black grapes) have resveratrol which helps to keep the platelets in your blood from sticking together (which may be why low quantities of red wine is known for having heart-healthy benefits
Our previous article about Healthy Meal Plans will also give you great information on incorporating more heart healthy foods and snacks into your cardiac diet and heart diet meal plans. It includes adding more whole grains into your diet, limiting unhealthy fats, and eating more of the right kinds of fruits and vegetables.
For the best heart healthy diet and heart healthy snacks, fruits and vegetables to choose from include fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits, low-sodium canned vegetables, and canned fruit packed in juice or water with no sugar added. Foods to avoid are vegetables with creamy sauces, fried or breaded vegetables, canned fruit packed in heavy syrup, and frozen fruit with sugar added.
Many people who have already suffered from heart disease are finding great results and benefits from having a plant-based diet. This removes processed foods, sugars, and unhealthy eating out of the equation so you can live a healthy life even after heart disease.
There are so many varieties of heart healthy foods you can cook, eat and enjoy while also maintaining a low cholesterol diet (cardiac diet). There are also so many heart healthy snacks you can choose from, and many are listed above!
Other than heart healthy foods and heart healthy snacks, what else does a heart healthy diet include?
The best heart healthy diet begins with knowing approximately how many calories you burn a day, and then through your daily routine and activity, use up at least as many calories as you take in. Depending on factors like age, gender, weight, and level of activity, the amount of calories you need each day will vary. You can use a Calorie Calculator to see what an average would be for you.
For your heart healthy diet, doctors will also tell you that potassium plays a role in every beat of your heart. Potassium helps improve muscle health causing them to move better, and it helps your nerves work better, and it helps your kidneys with filtering your blood. You can obtain your potassium naturally through foods as mentioned above, or through supplements. Be sure to check with your doctor before adding supplements to your heart healthy diet.
Your heart healthy diet (low cholesterol diet or cardiac diet) should also include increased activity for optimum heart health.
Here are a few other factors to incorporate in your heart diet (low cholesterol diet and cardiac diet):
- It is important to control your portion sizes
- Remember to eat slowly so you can actually taste your food and give yourself time to feel full
- Cut back on beverages and foods with added sugars
- Choose foods with less sodium
- If you drink alcohol, drink it in moderation
- Eat heart healthy foods from a variety of food groups
- Limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats
- Eat less of the nutrient-poor foods
- Read nutrition labels carefully
- Don’t smoke
Final Words About Your Heart Healthy Diet
As you incorporate heart healthy foods into your heart diet, it’s so important that you take time to not only enjoy your food, but also your family, friends, and others you spend time with in life. Having a healthy lifestyle and focusing on positive elements in your life will create a better mindset that encourages better eating, even enjoying healthy snacks and better overall health. You and your family are worth the effort of eating a heart healthy diet, because after all, the basic element of living your best life possible is simply a matter of the heart.
(This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.)