It’s relatively simple to take care of your cardiovascular system, which includes your heart and blood vessels. The American Heart Association has identified several modifiable risk factors for heart disease: Smoking, obesity, inactivity (being sedentary), high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and abnormal blood lipid levels (e.g. high cholesterol). Other factors, such as advancing age, or being male, obviously cannot be altered. So it makes sense to focus on risk factors that are within our control.
Assuming you avoid smoking tobacco, you can slash your risk of developing cardiovascular disease through some simple lifestyle changes. Essentially, it comes down to this: Eat right and move. That’s it. It’s really just that simple. Virtually all of the modifiable risk factors arise from diet and lifestyle. Even type 2 diabetes is linked to diet and lifestyle.
Of course, when you unpack “eat right and move,” things get a little more complicated. What does it mean to “eat right,” for instance? Numerous studies, conducted over many years, on thousands of people all over the world, have identified certain eating patterns and lifestyles that are invariably associated with longer lives and less disease—including our number one killer, heart disease.
Whether it’s the Mediterranean diet, the Okinawa diet, or the purpose-designed DASH diet to reduce hypertension (high blood pressure), they all have something in common: These heart-healthy diets feature lots of fresh plant foods. Most also feature some seafood. And relatively little meat.
Understanding Modern “Lifestyle” Diseases
In recent decades, scientists have come to understand that a chronic state of low-level inflammation underlies the development of many common disease states. From type 2 diabetes, to arthritis, to dementia, to heart disease itself, inflammation is a common, underlying factor. Even obesity is associated with inflammation.
In addition to helping you maintain a healthy body weight, a healthful diet that features lots of plant foods supplies not just common, essential nutrients, such as protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, but also phytonutrients. These are plant-based compounds that usually possess anti-inflammatory and/or antioxidant properties. Although they are not considered essential nutrients, meaning you can survive without them, it is becoming increasingly clear that you probably cannot thrive without them.
For example, certain plants, such as beets, supply dietary nitrates. These compounds are converted within the body to nitric oxide, which the body uses to signal certain muscle cells to relax. These muscle cells line the body’s blood vessels, and thus play a key role in controlling blood pressure. When you eat raw beets you get a big dose of these important phytonutrients, and research has shown that you may experience a beneficial reduction in blood pressure as a result.
Tree nuts are among the most healthful snacks. Never mind their relatively high fat content: It’s all heart-healthy “good” fat. Nuts also provide blood-pressure regulating minerals such as magnesium and potassium, and plenty of fiber. Snacking on nuts may actually help curtail the appetite, so snacking on nuts may be an excellent strategy to help you lose weight or maintain a healthy body weight.
Instead of eating packaged, low-nutrition, high-calorie potato or corn chips, consider making your own kale chips for snacking.
• 1 head kale
• 2 Tbsp olive oil
• sea salt
Preheat oven to 275° F. Wash and thoroughly dry kale (leaves must be completely dry). Cut out the ribs, and tear leaves into bite-size pieces. Toss with the oil, sprinkle with salt, and arrange on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Bake for about 20 minutes, turning leaves halfway through.
An apple, a banana, a peach, a pear: any of these are pre-packaged by nature for portability, shelf-stability and satisfaction. And unlike sugary drinks, the sugar in fruit won’t cause blood sugar levels to spike. Bonus: fruit fiber works to suppress appetite.
Portable tasty snacks made from garbanzo beans are full of protein, fiber, and satisfaction, but they’re eminently low in calories. Oats are linked to lower blood cholesterol levels.
No need to seek out fat-free versions. New and emerging research suggests that full-fat dairy may actually be associated with greater weight loss, not weight gain. Yogurt is also a good source of gut-friendly probiotics.
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