Heart attacks and strokes are highly preventable, according to the United States Surgeon General.
But as heart disease is the number-one killer worldwide, we're obviously doing something wrong. Registered dietician Emilia Klapp highlights a few key issues:
1. We smoke
The risk of dying of a heart attack is about four times higher in people who smoke than in those who don’t smoke.
Many of us are under the impression that the major danger from smoking is cancer, but that is not quite true. Smoking is the major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. In fact, about 40% of deaths caused by cardiovascular disease are due to smoking.
Smoking contributes to heart disease in the following manner:
It increases blood pressure, a risk for heart attacks and strokes.
The carcinogen components in tobacco damage the walls of the arteries.
The carbon monoxide from the burning of the tobacco interferes with the blood capacity to carry oxygen to the heart.
Smoking causes the narrowing of the blood vessels that carry blood to our legs and arms.
I know that to stop smoking is not a piece of cake, but you have to make an effort. If you try, I am confident you'll succeed. Be strong! Look for professional help to assist you in this task. And don’t get discouraged if you have already tried and didn’t make it. Try as many times as you can.
2. We don’t walk
Over the past 50 years, health professionals have examined the association between physical activity and the risk for heart disease. The findings consistently reveal that people who are physically active have half the risk for heart attacks than people who are not active. Those studies show also that at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, on most days of the week, is sufficient to reduce the risk of heart attack (1).
Keep in mind that the heart is a muscle, and like any other muscle in the body, it becomes stronger the more you exercise it. Without exercise, it loses muscle fibres and becomes weak until it is unable to do its job. And the last thing you need is a heart that can’t do its job.
The direct effects of physical activity on heart disease are:
It makes the heart stronger so it can pump more blood with fewer beats.
Lowers blood pressure by increasing the diameter of the coronary arteries.
Lowers LDL, the "bad" cholesterol.
Increases HDL, the "good" cholesterol.
Decreases the risk of diabetes, which is a risk for heart attacks.
3. We eat too much saturated fat
There is a reason why health authorities advise us to limit the consumption of saturated fat:
Saturated fat is the most rigid of all fats and is solid at room temperature. Solid fats are hard to dissolve and can easily get stuck in your arteries.
Saturated fat causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol. The liver makes about 75 percent of the cholesterol your body needs from internal sources, while the remaining 25 percent comes from food. But when you eat too much saturated fat, your liver keeps producing cholesterol and you end up with much more cholesterol than you need.
Limit saturated fat consumption to less than 10 percent of the total calories ingested per day.
4. We ingest too many foods containing hydrogenated oils or trans fats
Health authorities are concerned that the consumption of trans fats might have contributed to the 20th century epidemic of coronary heart disease.
Hydrogenated oils or trans fats, as they are usually called, are produced artificially by inserting molecules of hydrogen in vegetable oils, a process called hydrogenation. Through this process, the oil, which is liquid at room temperature, changes its original form and becomes solid. In other words, it becomes saturated fat. In addition, the unnatural shapes of trans fats cause our cells to become malformed and to malfunction. And that includes the cells of the heart and the arteries.
Read the food label and avoid products which contain trans fats or hydrogenated fats. Examples of foods that contain these harmful fats are:
Industrial baked goods such as cookies, doughnuts, croissants, cakes, and the like
Fried fast food
5. We don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables
We know that people who consume plant foods regularly have a lower incidence of heart disease than those who do not include them in their diet.
Fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals, non-nutritive chemicals found in plant foods that protect their host plants from infections and microbial invasions. Recently, however, we have learned that phytochemicals are also crucial in protecting humans against many diseases, including heart disease.
Among the functions phytochemicals perform in our bodies are:
They act as antioxidants.
They keep the walls of small blood vessels healthy.
They make our small blood vessels stronger.
They prevent platelets from becoming sticky and piling up.
They block specific enzymes that raise blood pressure.
Include about nine portions of fruits and vegetables a day as part of a healthy diet.
6. We have too much stress
Have you ever felt strong headaches, muscle pain, anxiety, insomnia, and tiredness? If you identify yourself with some of these symptoms, you body may be going through an excess of tension.
Nowadays, 80 percent of the population suffers from some kind of symptoms caused by stress which many times end up in illnesses such as high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart attacks.
Trying to cover on a daily basis more tasks than you physically can handle may be one of the major contributors to your stress.
You need to learn how to surround yourself with peace and serenity. Here are a few steps you can take to achieve your goal:
Walk as much as you can.
Add the different B vitamins to your diet. These vitamins have a calming and relaxing effect on the nervous system and help to combat anxiety, irritability, tension and insomnia. Food sources of vitamin B are whole grains, green peas, fish, eggs and brewer’s yeast. Take a glass of orange juice in the morning and add the brewer’s yeast. Vitamin C is also necessary in this process. You can also add a supplement that includes vitamin B complex.
Make nuts part of your diet. Nuts are high in calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and chrome, minerals that favour muscle relaxation. You may want to include a supplement that includes these minerals.
Have a session of osteopathy. Stress affects your body equilibrium. An osteopath can give you a massage that will help you reestablish the equilibrium you have lost.
Give yourself 10 minutes every day to call a friend and chat.
Take at least 4 free days a month where you can wake up in the morning without having planned anything to do. That way you can take the time to think what you would like to do that day. And if what appeals to you is doing nothing, then, by all means, do nothing!
7. We drink too much alcohol
Avoid high alcohol consumption. Five to seven percent of the hypertension we see in people is due to high alcohol intake. The Health World Organisation estimates that almost 2/3 of strokes and 50 percent of heart attacks are caused by high blood pressure.
Limit your alcohol intake to two small glasses of wine a day, if you are a male, and one small glass a day, if you are a female. - (Emilia Klapp, December 2008)
About the Author:
Emilia Klapp has a degree in Nutrition Science and is a registered dietician. With her new book, "Your Heart Needs the Mediterranean Diet", she has helped many people just like you to reduce the risk of heart disease and lose weight at the same time. For more information on the book and to receive a free especial report on the "Top 10 Mediterranean Curative Ingredients" visit www.emiliaklapp.com
1. Thompson P. Preventing coronary heart disease. The role of physical activity. The Physician and Sportsmedicine. 2001 Feb;29(2).