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Strategies for Promoting A Healthy Heart

Benjamin McDonald , edited by Ann Witt, MD

A diagnosis of heart disease should be a wake-up call alerting you to examine your own habits to see if any of them might be harmful to you or if they are likely worsening your heart disease. There are several important things you can do which will help reduce the symptoms and progression of your heart disease. Some of these changes may be easy for you to make but some of them will likely be quite challenging. It is very important that you surround yourself with a strong support group of friends, family, and loved ones to help ease your transition into a healthier lifestyle.

Quit Smoking The first change you should make is to quit smoking if you are a smoker. This is often one of the hardest lifestyle changes to make, but it is also one of the most important. Nicotine in the body temporarily increases heart rate and blood pressure. Smokers tend to run twice the risk for heart attack as non-smokers and are more likely to die from heart attacks than non-smokers. Employee Assistance Programs and medical professionals can often help you with smoking cessation techniques, support groups and classes.

Eat A Healthy Diet

The dietary choices you make can contribute to or lessen your heart disease risk. Keep in mind that healthy food doesn't have to taste bad. You don't need to view your diet changes as an end to your enjoyment of eating.

  • Sodium. While sodium (salt) is necessary for the body to function properly, too much sodium can cause problems, especially for those individuals who have heart failure. The higher the sodium concentration in your blood, the more fluid the kidneys will retain. This fluid retention can cause unnecessary strain on the heart. Limiting salt intake can also help control blood pressure.

  • Fluid Intake. In extreme cases of heart disease your doctor may want to regulate how much fluid (liquids) you take in. Excess fluid may put strain on the heart.

  • Cholesterol. High LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels are directly linked to the plaque buildups that cause coronary artery disease and can lead to heart failure as well. Foods high in saturated fats and trans fats such as red meat, whole milk, cheeses, prepared baked goods and many processed/prepackaged foods can increase your cholesterol levels, and should be eaten in limited quantities.

  • Fat. You should limit the amount of dietary fat you take in each day. Beyond limiting total fat, you should pay specific attention to limiting saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, and partially-hydrogenated oils/shortenings (found in foods like butter, certain oils and salad dressings, and most packaged baked goods and desserts). The fats you eat should consist of olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed and certain nuts such as almonds and walnuts, which have a higher proportion of unsaturated fats and are better for you.

  • Protein. Many of the foods that we commonly think of as good sources of protein, such as red meats and whole milk dairy products, are also high in fat. Make healthier protein choices by focusing on fish, chicken, lentils and beans, and soy products.

  • Eat Smaller Portions More Frequently. Many people who are trying to lose weight have the misconception that skipping a meal will help them reduce their caloric and fat intake for the day. Though the idea of reducing calories is on the right track, skipping a meal usually does not work as planned. You often end up much hungrier at your next meal and wind up taking in more calories than if you hadn't skipped a meal. The best way to lose weight is to spread your food intake out over small meals spaced evenly throughout the day. However, you still need to eat small portions and watch your overall calorie intake.

  • Ultra-Low-Fat Diets. Some doctors are now recommending that heart disease patients follow special ultra-low fat diets which have been shown to slow down or even reverse the progression of heart disease. Drs. Dean Ornish and John MacDougal have separately authored books outlining diet plans for cardiac patients which are vegetarian (eliminating all animal products except nonfat milk and yogurt) and very restrictive of fat intake (10% or less of your daily caloric intake comes from fat sources). While research suggests that following such diets can help slow or reverse heart disease, these diets are not optimal for everyone. More information on ultra-low fat diets can be found in the book, Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease, or on Dr. MacDougal's website. You should check with your doctor before making any radical changes to your diet.

Exercise Regularly

Another great way to reduce many of the risk factors for heart disease is to get regular exercise. Aerobic activities (e.g, biking, jogging, walking, and swimming) raise your heart rate and strengthen your cardiovascular system. Regularly engaging in one or more aerobic activities is one of the best ways to slow the progression of heart failure. Exercise can also be a fun way to relieve stress, gain confidence, and give you a general sense of well-being.

As a heart patient, you should check with your doctor before beginning any new program of exercise to make sure that your selected exercise plan will be safe for you. Your doctor will probably administer a stress test, the results of which will help her or him know what level of activity is appropriate for you.

When you begin exercising again it is very important that you listen to your body's signals. If you become tired or short of breath, take a break. If you experience any chest pain or numbness in your limbs, stop immediately and call your doctor.