Cutting the Risk of Heart Disease

Apple and pear

Apple and pear

In ancient times, people thought the heart was the seat of memory. We know it isn't. Something else we know: We can't forget to give the heart a lot of TLC. Fortunately, it's not really hard to provide that extra care. Among other things, we can:

Stop smoking. Each year, smoking—the single most preventable cause of death—kills about 400,000 Americans. Smokers' risk for heart disease is four times greater than the risk for nonsmokers.

Eat to beat high blood pressure. Blood pressure is the force of blood coursing through your arteries when your heart beats. Over time, high blood pressure, also called hypertension, tires the heart muscle by making it work harder. Heart attacks and heart failure can follow, and so can strokes.

Hypertension rates are much higher in modern, fast-moving cultures like ours than in less industrialized parts of the world. The main difference is the quality of the diet. In the United States, we eat huge portions of highly processed foods and minimal amounts of fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed grains. People in less industrialized cultures have simpler, healthier diets.

Cook smart to knock out cholesterol. Cholesterol, a fatlike substance, circulates in the blood primarily in two forms. LDL cholesterol can clog arteries and contribute to cardiovascular disease. HDL, the "good" cholesterol, sweeps harmful cholesterol out of the arteries.

Medical experts believe HDL cholesterol levels should be no lower than 40mg/dL. They recommend that LDL levels be no higher than 70-100mg/dL and that total cholesterol levels be no higher than 200mg/dL.

Our livers produce as much cholesterol as our bodies need. Genetic factors, smoking, inactivity, and obesity raise total cholesterol to dangerous levels. The major culprit here is the meat-and-potatoes American diet. Its saturated fat and trans fatty acid content is simply out of control. Substituting monounsaturated fat for saturated fat will go a long way toward bringing cholesterol down to a safe level and keeping it there.

What foods are best for controlling high cholesterol? The top-of-the-line foods are plant-based. Most vegetables and fruits are free of saturated fats. But this isn't their only advantage. Just as important is the power of plant foods to lower cholesterol levels. In a recent study, women who ate 8 to 11 walnuts every day in place of other fats cut their LDL cholesterol levels significantly. In another research project, men and women who ate a cup of carrots a day for three weeks experienced an 11 percent decrease in their blood cholesterol.

One reason for the drop is that carrots are high in soluble fiber. The soluble fiber in oats, carrots, and psyllium (available in health food stores) is particularly helpful, researchers say. Soy protein and other plant proteins seem to have a similar effect. The recipes in this book will show you how to use soluble fiber to enhance the taste—and the healthfulness—of the meals you prepare.

Eat more and weigh less. Fiber comes in two basic forms. The insoluble form passes through your digestive tract mostly unchanged. Bran, whole grains, and fruit skins are insoluble fibers. The other form of fiber is soluble. Soluble fiber dissolves, forming a gummy substance in the intestines. Oat bran, beans, citrus fruits and strawberries are a few of the foods that are rich in soluble fiber.

Both kinds of fiber are good for your heart. Soluble fiber traps cholesterol and removes it from your body. Insoluble fiber slows down the movement of food in your digestive tract. It makes you feel full more quickly and for a longer period of time than foods that contain little fiber. A half-cup of bran will fill you up faster than two sugar doughnuts.

A bean salad vs. pasta? No contest. Fiber-rich foods are a blessing to dieters and nondieters alike. They're heart healthy, filling, and when prepared correctly, as tasty as any food on the planet.

Exercise more. People who get too little exercise are twice as likely to develop heart disease as people who are active. Medical experts recommend that you get at least 30 minutes of moderate activity, such as brisk walking, five days a week. Do that, and you are likely to lower your blood pressure, resting heart rate, and total cholesterol. And exercise will also help you maintain your weight.

Stay cool and in control. Less important than the main risk factors discussed are what doctors call "secondary risk factors." Among these are stress and alcohol.

People under stress often eat, smoke, and drink too much. Overdoing alcohol can raise blood pressure and triglycerides (fat particles in the blood), tighten coronary arteries, and lead to obesity. Learn how to relax without alcohol. Slow down. Ease up on yourself. Let go of whatever is nagging at you. Distract yourself with a positive activity—a bath, a book, a movie, a phone call to a relative. Exercise. Laugh.

Fix a heart-healthy recipe, and share it with a friend.