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sneaky heart health risk factors: man eating while working

6 Ways You Could Be Unknowingly Putting Your Heart Health At Risk

Your heart is central to the functioning of your body—indeed, it’s even centrally located. Still, cardiovascular disease is currently the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, which is a clear sign that many a ticker need more attention and care than they’ve been getting. 

“While it’s true that some of our heart health is based on genetics, a large majority of it is based on things that are within our control,” says nutrition researcher and neuroscientist Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. In fact, dietary and lifestyle choices are heavily responsible for declining heart health. “If we can work to reduce our intake of processed foods, exercise each day (even a walk counts), and manage the stressors in our lives, we can regain control over our health,” Avena says.

Even if your heart seems to be pumping away just fine, a few seemingly small habits might actually be sabotaging this essential organ. Here are the sneaky risk factors experts recommend eliminating ASAP for a healthier heart for years to come.

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., is a nutrition researcher, neuroscientist, and assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., is a doctor of nutrition and the owner of eatrightfitness. Patrick Fratellone, M.D., is a cardiologist based in New York City. Michelle Routhenstein, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.C.S., C.D.N., is a preventive cardiology dietitian with Entirely Nourished

1. Letting stress take over

There’s no avoiding all stress in life, but when stress becomes chronic, your heart may ultimately pay the price. Stress is a huge contributor to heart disease—and one that many of us ignore. 

“Chronic stress causes the stress hormone cortisol to stay elevated, which leads to high blood pressure and places extra strain on your heart,” explains doctor of nutrition Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., owner of eatrightfitness

As such, managing stress is just as important for your cardiovascular health as it is for your mental health and mood. Of course, identifying the factors that cause you significant stress and modifying them as you’re able is an important step. You’ll also want to nail down a few strategies you personally find helpful for chilling out, whether it’s walking, a peaceful playlist, or mind-body movement like yoga, Adams says.

Read More: 4 Lifestyle Factors That Increase Your Risk Of Dementia

He also recommends incorporating a session or two of high-intensity exercise into your weekly routine, if you don’t already. The reason? Research shows that, while high-intensity workouts initially increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, those levels drop to below their baseline after that spike, leaving you feeling more at ease. 

2. Skipping Your Annual Physical

If you’re seemingly in good health, it can be all too easy to forego an annual physical—but it’s worth making that appointment. As you probably know, a physical involves measuring your weight, blood pressure, and heartbeat, and checking in on some basic metrics like your cholesterol levels with a little standard bloodwork, explains Patrick Fratellone, M.D., a cardiologist based in New York City. “These measurements and markers can help identify and address risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes,” he says. Even if you feel fine, keeping an eye on your numbers is a good idea, as some heart-related health concerns (like high blood pressure) often don’t present with symptoms.

3. Prioritizing Exercise, But Not nutrition

Exercise is an important and well-known part of the heart health picture, but failing to pair it with appropriate pre- and post-workout fuel leaves your body more vulnerable to oxidative stress, a condition marked by an overabundance of free radicals that inflict damage on cells and tissues, including those crucial for heart function, explains preventive cardiology dietitian Michelle Routhenstein, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.C.S., C.D.N., of Entirely Nourished

“Oxidative stress contributes to inflammation, arterial stiffness, and plaque buildup in the arteries, increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis and heart attacks,” she explains. “It’s essential to prioritize a nutrient-sufficient, balanced diet that includes a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants to combat oxidative stress effectively.” 

In addition to chowing down on plenty of antioxidant-rich foods, make sure your exercise routine is complimented by meals full of lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats, which support heart health as well as muscle repair and recovery, Routhenstein suggests. Use these tips to get a rainbow of produce into your daily diet—and check out these expert-approved post-workout meal ideas—for inspiration.

4. Over-relying on processed foods

A recent study suggests that a diet heavy in ultra-processed foods (which typically contain many ingredients and are made from substances extracted from foods as well as additives and even artificial ingredients) is linked to a higher risk of suffering from chronic diseases, including heart disease. 

Though these products can be problematic for heart health for a number of reasons, one is that many of them are high in saturated fats. “Saturated fats may negatively impact cholesterol levels, cause cells to be more insulin resistant, and increase the risk of heart disease,” says Routhenstein. “High intake of saturated fats can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and contribute to the formation of plaque in the arteries, leading to atherosclerosis and an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.” 

Minimizing your intake of highly processed foods as much as possible is always a good move for your heart, both from a saturated fat perspective and beyond, according to Routhenstein. The best foods you can eat are those in their original, whole form, but if you need some more specific guidance, this two-week guide to cutting out ultra-processed foods will help you make gradual, sustainable changes.

5. Not drinking enough water

When you’re dehydrated, you increase the viscosity of your blood, making it thicker and stickier, which can impair blood flow through the arteries, raising blood pressure and increasing the risk of blood clots and cardiovascular events, according to Routhenstein. “Sticky blood increases the workload on the heart as it pumps harder to circulate blood through narrowed vessels, potentially leading to high blood pressure, heart attacks, or strokes,” she says. Though the heart health-related implications of dehydration may not be as in-your-face as obvious signals like fatigue and lightheadedness, falling short on important H2O can take a toll on your system, especially over time.

To maintain optimal blood viscosity and support cardiovascular health, drink up all day long, suggests Routhenstein. “Aim for at least eight to 10 cups of water daily, adjusting your intake based on individual factors like activity level and climate,” she says. You might even consider mixing a hydration supplement into your water, which will provide electrolytes crucial for fluid balance.

6. Going Overboard On refined carbs

Though carbohydrates are a necessary macronutrient, they’re not all created equal. Overconsuming “white” or refined carbs, such as crackers, flour tortillas, instant noodles, white bread, and white rice, can contribute to heart disease, warns Fratellone. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to support this. Part of the puzzle is that an excess of refined carbohydrates spurs obesity and diabetes, both of which then contribute to heart health risks, Avena says.

Since research suggests whole grains are actually protective against heart disease, try to keep your carb consumption as rooted in these foods as possible. In general, though, Avena recommends limiting portion sizes of carbohydrate-rich foods like bread and pasta, which aren’t as satiating as protein- or fat-rich foods and are therefore easy to overeat.

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