Heart Disease: Risk and Prevention

By Anne Wilfong, R.D., L.D. – February 1, 2020

How often do you think about your cardiovascular health? According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a man’s risk for heart disease begins to increase significantly by the age of 45, and a woman’s risk increases starting at age 55. However, while it may take years for cardiovascular disease to develop, there are steps you can take now to reduce your risk factors.

Several modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease are maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol levels and physical activity. There are certainly risk factors you cannot modify, such as age and a family history of cardiovascular disease, but even so, those aren’t reasons to ignore the risk factors you can change. Let’s get started.

High Blood Pressure

Each time you go to the doctor, your blood pressure is checked, but you don’t always get the results unless you ask for them. Ask and keep a record over time so you can identify any trends. Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHG.

Dietary changes such as increasing potassium intake through fresh fruits and vegetables, consuming calcium- and magnesium-rich foods and reducing sodium and alcohol intake can help lower your blood pressure. Aim for 4,700 mg daily of potassium through fruits and vegetables such as squash, potatoes, broccoli, oranges, melon and bananas. Calcium found in low-fat dairy products and magnesium in whole grains, nuts, seeds and green, leafy vegetables might also play a role in maintaining healthy blood pressure. Reducing your sodium intake will make an impact. Start by using less salt when cooking and seasoning your foods, and instead, use fresh herbs and spices — or just go without. If you drink alcohol, limit consumption to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.


The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) as an effective way to reduce LDL cholesterol. Ideal total cholesterol is less than 200 mg/dL, and an optimal LDL is less than 100 mg/dL. In addition to eating a diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat, several foods such as those high in soluble fiber, plant stanols, soy protein and tree nuts have been suggested to aid in lowering LDL cholesterol.

Combining several of these cholesterol-lowering mechanisms will have an even greater impact than each one alone:

1. Soluble Fiber. The NIH estimates adding 5-10 grams of soluble fiber per day may lower your LDL level between 3-5 percent. You may already be eating several foods high in soluble fiber such as oats, barley, legumes, psyllium, apples, pears and strawberries. For example: ¼ cup dry steel-cut oats cooked at breakfast topped with 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed and one large pear provide approximately 5 grams of soluble fiber.

2. Plant Stanols. Adding 2 grams of plant stanols per day, when part of a heart-healthy diet, may decrease your LDL cholesterol by 5-15 percent. Margarines enriched with plant stanols are readily available and can easily be swapped for butter, a more saturated fat.

3. Soy Protein. Swapping soy protein for animal protein high in saturated fat may potentially decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease. Whole soy proteins include edamame, tofu, tempeh, miso and soy milk. Start simply by using extra firm tofu in your next stir-fry or switching to soy milk.

4. Tree Nuts. Rich in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fats, tree nuts such as almonds, pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts are an excellent way to add nutrients to your diet and may help reduce your LDL cholesterol. Eating just 1.5 ounces per day as a snack or tossed in a salad or stir-fry is an easy way to boost your diet with heart-healthy food.

Physical Activity

We often think of exercise as a way to maintain weight, but it’s also important to remember the cardiovascular benefits you gain every time you exercise. Exercise doesn’t have to be hard and strenuous to be beneficial, and some activity is always better than none. As a matter of fact, breaking exercise down into 10-minute intervals is a good way to get started in an exercise program. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services currently recommends that adults, ages 18-64, get two hours and 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous intensity or an equivalent combination of both per week. Further recommendations are for adults to strength train two days or more per week.

Combining several of these methods to maintain a healthy heart will have more impact than each one alone.


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