Dark chocolate, red wine, extra-virgin olive oil and onions can help keep your heart healthy. (Raymond Hom)
Suzanne Steinbaum is a cardiologist in New York City, so you might imagine that most of her patients are older men with stressful desk jobs and thickening waistlines. Many, however, are women who look fit and healthy; a few have yet to hit 50. But there they are, in her office, suffering from heart palpitations, high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol. They may not believe themselves to be in imminent danger, but the signs of future cardiovascular problems are there — and increasing with every unhealthy lifestyle choice they make.
This is why Steinbaum, who is the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women medical spokeswoman, is so vehement about the 10-year-old campaign’s Heart-Healthy at Any Age message. “To many women,” says Steinbaum, heart disease is “always someone else’s problem — until it’s not.”
The good news is that 80-90 percent of heart disease is preventable, and most of us have a general idea about how to protect ourselves: Eat healthy foods, avoid salt and saturated fat, exercise, minimize stress. But such vague directives can be hard to follow. How much stress is too much? What qualifies as a healthy food? We pored over the research and asked the experts to come up with some ultraspecific, easy-to-implement advice. The changes they recommend might be small, but taken as a whole, the benefit is big.
Buy better olive oil. It pays to choose the more expensive extra-virgin variety, which is higher in polyphenols than refined olive oil, says Seattle nutritionist Stephanie Gailing. Polyphenols, a class of antioxidants, help increase “good” HDL cholesterol while lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol. You can make your oil earn its keep by combining it with lycopene-rich foods such as tomatoes, pink grapefruit and watermelon, since the fat in olive oil helps the body absorb lycopene, an antioxidant that may lower bad cholesterol.
Drink French wine. In a Cornell University study, reds from humid regions (such as southern France) contained more of the heart-healthy compound resveratrol than wines from drier climates (such as parts of California and Argentina). Though concentrations vary from year to year and winery to winery, pinot noir produced the most, on average.
Insist on fresh air. Don’t put up with secondhand smoke, and forgo the outdoor cafe in the middle of a smoggy downtown. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that particulate matter may interfere with your heart rate and fat metabolism. Worse, just five minutes’ exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke measurably stiffens your aorta; after half an hour, it reduces your coronary arteries’ maximum capacity for blood flow and makes your platelets stickier. This means that less blood gets to your heart, putting you at greater risk for a heart attack.
Don’t overcook fish. By now, most of us know that cold-water fish, such as wild salmon, contains heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. What most people don’t know, says Steinbaum, is that overcooking fish can destroy those acids. To get enough omegas to reduce inflammation and lower bad cholesterol, eat fish cooked to medium-rare, aiming for two 4- to-6-ounce servings per week.
Eat the outer layers. Like garlic, onions contain quercetin, a phytonutrient that has anti-inflammatory properties, which have heart-health benefits. The layers closest to the peel boast the highest quantity of it, so when trimming, lose only the very outer, papery parts.
Have citrus with your chocolate. We’ve already zealously embraced the news that dark chocolate has health benefits. To optimize them, eat chocolate with an orange or some lemon tea. The reason: Vitamin C enhances the antioxidant activity of dark chocolate’s flavonoids, which may improve blood flow.
Take a true tally of your exercise. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week at a moderate intensity — that’s a level where you’re too breathless to sing but still able to talk. So, alas, your 10-minute warm-up and 15-minute cool-down don’t count.
Stay on your feet. Even if you consistently meet the recommended exercise goal, don’t sit around congratulating yourself — especially after a meal. In a University of California San Diego study, subjects who spent more time sitting after meals had more fatty deposits around their hearts — even if they exercised. Standing engages big postural muscles, which seems to enhance sugar and lipid metabolism, and in turn reduce fat buildup in the arteries, says Lynette Craft, adjunct assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago.
Breathe deep. Chronic stress has been linked to high blood pressure and inflammation of the arteries, which ups your heart disease risk. To keep your level low, Nina Smiley, director of mindfulness mind-body workshops at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y., suggests taking slow, deep breaths before tough phone calls or tense meetings. This type of breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which fosters a sense of calm.
Tidy up. To further dial down your stress level, clear the clutter. Too much visual stimulation increases anxiety levels, says Cathleen McCandless, author of “Feng Shui That Makes Sense.” Her advice: “Live with only what you love.” Still buried? Invest in out-of-sight storage.
Get off the clock. Finally, sufficient sleep helps keep your stress hormones in check. Do your best to go to bed when you feel tired, and wake up naturally, advises Virend Somers, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn. Aim for the same amount of sleep every day by adjusting your bedtime based on when you need to wake up. The true test: If you need an alarm clock, you’re probably not getting enough shut-eye.
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