Your heart may be aging faster than you are. Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new tool for measuring heart disease risk that calculates a person’s “heart age” based on blood pressure, body mass index, and other factors
According to CDC data, nearly three out of four U.S. adults have a predicted heart age that is older than their actual age, placing them at higher risk for heart attacks and stroke. (You can find out your own heart age by using the calculator on the CDC website
Everyone can benefit from a heart-healthy diet, but if you’re among the 70 percent of the population with an accelerated heart age, the payoff is even greater. While diet doesn’t directly factor into the new calculator, it can affect many of the indicators that do. Decreasing portion sizes and cutting out empty calories from junk food can promote weight loss and decrease body mass index, a measure of obesity. These changes can also reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes, another factor that drives up heart age. And eating more produce and other plant foods while slashing salt can help to lower blood pressure.
Heart-healthy diet guidelines have evolved over time. The emphasis was once on choosing low-fat, low-cholesterol foods, but we now know that it’s the quality and sources of fat that matter most, not the amount. Choosing carbohydrate foods that are rich in nutrients and fiber in place of refined carbs made with white flour and sugar is equally important. In fact, experts are moving away from talk about fats, carbs, and proteins altogether, and focusing on the actual foods and overall eating patterns that can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, inflammation, and other early warning signals of heart disease. A diet aimed at prevention should be built on a foundation of nutrient-dense, low-sodium foods: vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, whole grains, beans, and fish.
Six Eating Habits That Can Boost Heart Health
That sounds well and good, but putting this general advice into practice can be overwhelming, especially if it’s a big shift from your current meal and snack patterns. To ease the transition, you can break up heart-healthy guidelines into smaller goals and tackle one or two changes at a time. Here are six eating habits that can make a big difference and help to reverse the clock on your aging heart
Swap one of your daily snacks for a handful of nuts. From almonds and pistachios to walnuts and peanuts, all nuts are heart-healthy choices, so choose your favorites. Stick to unsalted, though
Serve at least one cup of vegetables and/or fruit with every meal. Produce is naturally low in sodium, and it’s rich in fiber, potassium, and other nutrients that may help to lower blood pressure. Squeeze in extra servings as snacks, such as berries with plain yogurt or baby carrots with hummus
Put fish on the menu twice a week. Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and Arctic char are best bets, but some seafood is better than no seafood, so if you prefer milder, flaky white fish or shellfish, those are fine choices, too. Fish fillets cook in less than 10 minutes, so they’re a smart entree choice for speedy weeknight meals
Make the majority of your grains whole. Whole-grain bread, crackers, pasta, and breakfast cereals made from whole-grain flours are convenient choices to keep on hand. Intact and minimally processed grains, such as brown rice, oats, quinoa, popcorn, and bulgur wheat may offer even more benefits because they are digested slowly, producing a lower glycemic response
Eat beans or lentils at least three times per week. Plant-based proteins are a nutrient-rich substitute for processed and red meats, which may increase heart disease risk factors. Combine canned, low-sodium beans with whole-grain pasta and roasted or sauteed vegetables for a simple meal that hits on three of the heart-healthy food groups listed here. Or, serve a side of seasoned beans in place of rice, pasta, or potatoes
Cook more meals at home using whole foods. Seventy-five percent of the salt in our diet comes from processed and restaurant foods, so preparing more meals from scratch is hands down the most strategic way to reduce sodium. Minimize the salt you add to recipes and use fresh or dried herbs, vinegar, and citrus juices to build flavor.