Did you know that heart disease—the leading cause of death in the U.S.—can start before you’re even born? Or that erectile dysfunction isn’t just fodder for goofy commercials involving bathtubs and innuendo, but a warning sign that a heart attack may be lurking a few years around the bend?
I learned this, and much more, at the recent International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine: Cardiovascular Disease, hosted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the George Washington University. (Read my reflections on the conference here.) The event’s inspiring take-home message? Heart disease isn’t inevitable! While prevention is best, a low-fat, whole-food, plant-based diet can actually reverse heart disease in some patients.1,2
Building on that foundation, the leading scientists and physicians who came to speak discussed even more great ways to take care of your ticker. I’m excited to share five of their outside-the-box tips for boosting the health of your heart—and the rest of you too!
5 Surprising tips for better heart health
1. Eat dark leafy greens to help protect blood vessels
Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, treated Bill Clinton when his bypass failed, authored the New York Times bestseller Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, and appeared in the popular documentary Forks Over Knives. A key part of Dr. Esselstyn’s prescription for his patients with heart disease? Eat lightly steamed or boiled greens, sprinkled with a few drops of vinegar, 6 times a day. The powerful antioxidants from the greens can help repair the lining of injured blood vessels. Of course, if you’re on blood thinners, let your physician know you’re making these changes. That way, Dr. Esselstyn noted in a follow-up call, your doctor can change your dose as needed while you reap the profound health benefits of greens.
2. Feet, forks, fingers, sleep, stress, love
This six-in-one tip comes from Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He emphasized that lifestyle is the best medicine and outlined six simple steps for boosting your health:
- Feet: Stay active.
- Forks: Stick to real, whole food, and mostly plants. (Or all plants, if you’re vegan. 🙂 ) Eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains regularly is linked to markedly lower risk of chronic disease.
- Fingers: Drop the cigarettes, already!
- Sleep: Get more.
- Stress: Do it less, and find better ways to manage it.
- Love: As Dr. Katz put it, “Find someone to hug—preferably someone who wants to hug you back!”
3. Increase veggie variety
Susan B. Roberts, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and founder of the online iDiet program (www.myidiet.com), spoke about rewiring the brain’s response to food. She noted that one of our basic drives is to seek variety: We eat more when more choices are available. We can make this drive work for us by having a greater variety of vegetables available at a meal. Not only will this encourage us to eat more veggies, but research shows that the variety-induced increase in vegetable intake is linked to weight loss.
4. Steer clear of saturated fat and cholesterol
While recent media hype might have some believing that steak fried in butter is A-OK, nothing could be further from the truth. Dr. Neal Barnard, a faculty member at George Washington University School of Medicine and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, pointed out that the best science we have still shows that eating cholesterol—found in animal-based foods—raises “bad” cholesterol levels and puts your heart at risk. What’s more, eating saturated fat (found mostly in animal fats and tropical oils, like coconut and palm), drives up the body’s own production of bad cholesterol. So cut the cholesterol, skip the “sat fat,” and safeguard your heart.
5. Watch a comedy
Turns out those fluffy rom coms may actually be good for you—and your significant other, too! As Dr. Stephen Kopecky, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic pointed out, the vessels that transport blood to the body need to be able to relax when necessary. This allows them to increase blood flow where needed, for instance to your heart muscle when you’re working out. Funny enough, research shows that watching a comedy actually improves these vessels’ ability to relax. In men, this improved relaxation response could mean more blood can flow to certain other areas, too, if you catch my drift. Which could make for a more exciting date night. (‘Nuff said.)
So there you have it: 5 unexpected ways to keep your ticker happy. Which of these did you already know about? Which came as a surprise? And what do you do to keep your heart healthy? Leave a comment below and let me know!
Want more details on a heart-friendly, low-fat, plant-based diet? Check out this fact sheet from Physicians Committee.
Ready to eat? Head on over to the Veggie Quest recipe page for delicious plant-based fare!References
1. Esselstyn CB Jr, Gendy G, Doyle J, Golubic M, Roizen MF. A way to reverse CAD? J Fam Pract. 2014 Jul;63(7):356-364b. Full article here.
2. Ornish D et al. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA. 1998 Dec 16;280(23):2001-7. Erratum in: JAMA 1999 Apr 21;281(15):1380. Full article here.