Your heart is the strongest muscle in your body responsible for circulating oxygen and nutrients to your organs and tissues and removing metabolic waste through a network of arteries and veins. Our daily habits have a big impact on our heart health (such as what we eat and drink, how active we are, whether we smoke and our stress levels) as do a range of non-modifiable risk factors such as our age, gender, ethnicity and family history.
Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) is a collection of conditions that is caused by poor heart health which affects the wider circulatory system. CVD includes a wide range of conditions such as heart disease, stroke and heart attacks.
There are a range of factors that can increase the risk of developing CVD. Some of these are known as non-modifiable which means we cannot change them, such as our age (our risk increases as we get older), ethnicity, gender and family history of heart conditions. However, there are many modifiable risk factors that we can make small daily change to that considerably reduces our risk.
Modifiable Risk Factors
Non-Modifiable Risk Factors
- High Blood Pressure
- High Cholesterol
- Being overweight or obese
All of these factors are influenced by our diet, level of activity, alcohol consumption, stress, sleep and weight.
- Age – our risk increases as we get older
- Ethnicity – South Asian populations (Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani) have a higher risk of CVD as do those with an African Caribbean heritage.
- Gender – men have a higher risk of developing heart disease prematurely than women
- Family history – immediate family prevalence of CVD early in life increases your individual risk of developing CVD
It can seem overwhelming knowing where to start but even by making small changes to your diet, lifestyle or regular habits all add up to significantly reduce your modifiable risk factors. It’s never too late to start looking after your heart.
1: Quit Smoking
One of the single biggest lifestyle changes that can dramatically lower your CVD risk is to stop smoking, whatever the variety. Components of smoke damages the lining of blood vessels making arteries narrower and increases the ‘stickiness’ of blood cells which can lead to blood clots. Even a start by reducing the amount or frequency of smoking is a strong step in the right direction.
2: Choose the right fats
Too much saturated fat can raise your cholesterol which increases the risk of heart disease. Swapping foods typically high in saturated fats (such as butter, ghee, lard, fatty cuts of meat, coconut or palm oils, hard cheeses, pastries and deep fried foods) with those higher in unsaturated fats (such as rapeseed/olive/sunflower oils, lean meats, fish and seafood, low fat dairy or dairy alternatives, baked rather than deep fried snacks) makes a big difference. Remember this does not mean a low-fat diet, instead it’s swapping to the right kind of fats.
3: Swap the salt
Salt is made of sodium and chloride and it is the sodium part of salt which can increase blood pressure when we consume too much. Salt added to foods at home, during cooking or during manufacture are the major sources of sodium in our diets. So easy ways to cut down are to swap salt for other flavours such as spices, herbs, citrus, ginger and garlic; add less at home and reduce use of foods naturally high in salt such as soy sauce, fish sauce, stocks, hard cheeses and cured meats/fish.
4: Add more wholegrains
Such as wholemeal unleavened bread, brown and wild rice, wholegrain noodles, quinoa, bulgur wheat and brown pasta. Diets rich in wholegrains are associated with lower cholesterol, healthier weight as well as a healthy gut microbiome which itself can lower risk of CVD.
5: Build in Activity
Regular activity that gets the heart beating faster improves circulatory and heart health, improves blood cholesterol levels and reduces blood pressure. Exercise itself can’t eliminate the impacts of long periods of sedentary time so aim to build in activity throughout your day by moving more, walking where possible and using the stairs. Aim for 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate activity each week such as walking, gentle cycling or swimming.
6: Drink less alcohol
Alcohol contains calories (7kcal per gram) so regular drinking can lead to weight gain. High intakes over sustained periods of time increase blood pressure and increases the likelihood of developing diabetes and heart disease. Quick ways to reduce your alcohol intake – choose drinks with a lower alcohol content or drinks that are combined with a non-alcoholic mixer, alternate drinking days with non-drinking days and try the growing market of alcohol-free beers, wines and spirits (but remember these often still contain sugar).
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