Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States. While this statistic might be frightening, it should be reassuring to know that heart disease is not inevitable and prevention is possible through diet and lifestyle shifts.
Research shows that following the Mediterranean diet is one of the best diets for cardiovascular health and individuals following a Mediterranean diet have a lower risk of coronary heart disease, strokes and total cardiovascular disease.
In honor of national heart month this February, we are sharing below our five tips for living a heart healthy life on the Mediterranean diet.
- Know your Risks!
First and foremost, it’s important for you to establish your baseline risk for heart disease. Major risk factors include tobacco use, elevated blood cholesterol, hypertension (or high blood pressure), physical inactivity, and obesity or being overweight.If you fall into any of these categories, it’s not too late to start making changes to reduce your risk! Even small changes can help. For example, research shows that even a modest weight loss (5-10% of total body weight) can reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease even if individuals remain obese or overweight.
Knowing your risks and making dietary and lifestyle changes to reduce those risks is an important first place to start on your journey to leading a heart healthy life. Make sure to have an annual checkup with your doctor to discuss your risk factors.
- Take Your Diet to the Mediterranean
A healthy diet is one of your best weapons for reducing your risk for heart disease, and the Mediterranean diet has been consistently proven in scientific research to be one of the best diets for heart health.
If you aren’t sure where to start with the Mediterranean diet, start by focusing on what you can add to your diet versus the things that you need to restrict.
- Regularly incorporate healthy fats like olive oil, avocado and nuts and seeds into your meals
- Eat two servings of fish and/or seafood per week
- Snack on nuts like almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans and cashews
- Choose fruit for dessert
- Fill half your plate at each meal with fruits and vegetables
- Use spices, seasonings and herbs to season your food instead of salt
- Manage Stress
Chronic stress increases many risk factors for heart disease. Stress also reduces our ability to make healthy dietary and lifestyle choices. When we are stressed, we are more likely to overeat, get poor quality or inadequate sleep and indulge in too many glasses of wine.
It’s so important for heart health (and overall health!) to find healthy ways to reduce stress. We talked to Carrie Torn, a therapist, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and yoga teacher, to get her tips for managing stress.
In regards to making time for self-care, Carrie says, “It’s important to make self-care a regular part of your day and routine. One way to do this is to use habit stacking, a term coined by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits. If you already have an established habit embedded in your routine, see if you can add in your new desired habit either right before or after the established habit. Such as every morning after I make my coffee, I’ll sit and meditate for 5 minutes or journal for 5 minutes, read something inspiring, etc. Start small and build on as it becomes a part of your regular routine.”
- Get Moving!
Living a sedentary lifestyle is one of the main risk factors for heart disease. The heart is a muscle that needs exercise just like all of the other muscles in our body. Regular exercise keeps our blood vessels flexible, which keeps blood pressure normal. Exercise is also a natural stress-reliever so staying active kills two birds with one stone!To get inspired, download a workout app like Down Dog, schedule a regular walking date with a friend or simply make it a point to reach a certain number of steps each day. The goal doesn’t have to be an hour long, intense workout everyday, but instead focus on daily movement that feels good.
- Prioritize Sleep
Lack of sleep has been linked to hypertension and heart disease. Similar to stress, lack of sleep also sets us up to make poor dietary and lifestyle choices, which can in turn increase our risk for heart disease. Make it a priority to get 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
If you are struggling with sleep, work on your sleep hygiene by following these tips:
- Establish a regular bedtime routine
- Charge your phone somewhere out of reach, either in another room or far away from your bedside; blue light from our phones can interfere with our sleep!
- Fall asleep with a good book instead of the TV
- Keep your room cool and dark
- Aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day
Here are some more sleep hygiene tips from the American Heart Association.