Risk Factors That Can Affect Your Heart

It’s important for you to know the risk factors that affect your heart and possibly lead to Heart Disease.  Some risk factors you cannot control such as your age, family history, gender, and race.  But, the good news is that there are other risk factors that you can control.

Most patients with heart disease can lower their risk of future problems and increase their quality of life by making some better choices for themselves.  Areas that you can improve are:

  • Tobacco Use
  • Alcohol
  • High Cholesterol
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Overweight
  • Inactivity
  • Stress

I wasn’t always good at paying attention to these areas of improvement, but I want better for you.  I’m going to talk about the three most common factors that can affect your heart – High Cholesterol, High Blood Pressure, and Diabetes.  You will also find many common prevention or Lifestyle Changes between all three.  Basically, healthy choices work for everyone.

Video from University of Ottawa Heart Institute

The foundation and mission of Cooking Heart Smart is to focus on managing your diet to lower some of the controllable risk factors listed here.  All of the recipes and meal plans are designed to help lower Saturated Fat (High Cholesterol), Sodium (High Blood Pressure), and Carb Counting (Diabetes).

You can learn more about all of these and more from several reliable sources such as CDC.govWorld Heart Federation, and of course The American Heart Association.

How Can High Cholesterol Affect Your Heart?

What is the Main Cause of High Cholesterol?

There are three main causes for high cholesterol that can be completely controlled by your lifestyle choices.

  1. An Unhealthy Diet
  2. Being Overweight
  3. Lack of Activity

Poor Diet – Eating animal products such as red meat, full fat dairy, and eggs can increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood stream.  Saturated Fat is also found in some plant products such as Coconut Oil and Palm Oil.  Trans Fats are the worst which are mostly found in packaged snacks and desserts.

Obesity – Having a BMI (Body Mass Index) of more than 30 or greater puts you at risk for high cholesterol.  You can use this chart to determine your BMI. 

Exercise – Being active has many benefits which includes boosting your body’s HDL (good cholesterol) and reducing LDL (bad cholesterol).  Even walking 30 minutes a day will be a benefit.

What are the Warning Signs of Clogged Arteries?

Healthy arteries have smooth walls that allow blood to flow through them easily.  Clogged arteries have plaque buildup on the inner walls of the arteries.  This plaque can reduce the blood flow or block it completely.  That is exactly what happened to me.  All three of the arteries in my heart were more than 90% blocked.  Not a good situation.  Should have done my homework when I had the warning signs.  I had all of these.

  • Chest Pain
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Dizziness or Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Sweating

Don’t wait if you have any or all of these signs.  Seek help and get checked out by a doctor.

The video below is from Zero to Finals.  It was designed to teach students, but I thought it was a really good visual to explain the affect of plaque in your heart arteries.

How Can I Lower Cholesterol with Diet?

Saturated Fat – We know saturated fat mainly comes from animal products.  However, we do have choices.  There are a variety of healthy protein sources that we can choose that have less fat. 

  • Add omega-3 rich fish such as salmon at least twice a week.
  • Eat Boneless, Skinless Chicken to your weekly meals.
  • Limit Red Meat to once a week and choose lean cuts like beef sirloin and top loin.  Buffalo meat is also a good choice as it is lower in fat than beef overall.
  • Choose lower fat or fat-free versions of Dairy products like Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese.
  • Make healthy fat choices like Avocados, Nuts, and low saturated fat Cooking Oils.  Avoid Tropical Oils (Coconut Oil and Palm Oil).
  • Swap Butter for Buttery Spreads like Earth Balance®Organic Spread or Smart Balance®Organic Spread.

How Can High Blood Pressure Affect Your Heart?

What Causes High Blood Pressure?

Most people do not even know they have high blood pressure because there are no warning signs.  Measuring your blood pressure is the only way to know if you have high blood pressure.

You literally can have high blood pressure (hypertension) for years and not have a clue.  Which is the scary part because the damage high blood pressure can cause your blood vessels and heart can be life threatening.  Talk to your doctor to find out what your blood pressure numbers should be.

There is not really an exact cause for high blood pressure, but the following have been linked to it.

  • Family History of High Blood Pressure
  • Older Age 
  • Lack of Physical Activity
  • Obesity
  • Too Much Salt in Diet
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic Kidney Disease
  • Adrenal and Thyroid Disorders

There is a lot here that we cannot control, but there are some that we can control.  For example, we can lower the sodium in our diet by making better food choices.  We can take the dog for a walk around the block a couple times a day.  We can make the decision to quit smoking or at the very least cut back on the amount and frequency.  We can reduce our daily stress levels just by practicing those magic words, “just let it go”.  And finally, we can make sure we take the medicine our doctor prescribed us.

Does High Blood Pressure Make Your Heart Work Harder?

Yes, high blood pressure makes your heart work harder. Blood pressure is the force that blood flows through the arteries and pushes against the artery wall.  Below are some of the main dangers of having high blood pressure.

Heart Attack or Heart Disease – High blood pressure contributes to hardening of the arteries which can lead to a heart attack or heart disease, or heart failure.

Heart disease is when your arteries become damaged, or less elastic, which decreases the flow of blood and oxygen. 

A heart attack is when the blood supply to your heart is blocked and the heart muscle begins to die from lack of oxygen.

  Heart failure is a condition where your heart can’t pump enough blood and oxygen to your other organs.

Some Lifestyle Changes you can make to help prevent or manage High Blood Pressure.

  • Moderate exercise for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week
  • Eating a healthy diet that limits sodium and alcohol
  • Not smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Managing stress

To learn more about how high blood pressure affects your heart click the links below.

Mayo Clinic  – Read more about Risk Factors

WebMD – Good explanation of blood pressure levels.

How to Lower High Blood Pressure with Diet

The Mayo Clinic has a top 10 list of ways to lower your blood pressure with diet.  All are common sense ideas that you can implement slowly into your daily life. 

Mayo Clinic’s Top 10:

  1. Lose weight if you are overweight or obese.  Your blood pressure can increase with excess weight which puts a strain on your heart.
  2. Get regular exercise.  30 minutes a day will be a benefit.
  3. Eat a healthy diet.  Keep a food diary.  Become a smart shopper.
  4. Reduce sodium in your diet.  Aim for 1,500 – 2,300 milligrams per day.
  5. Limit alcohol.  One drink for women and two for men per day.
  6. Quit smoking.  Don’t start.
  7. Cut back on caffeine.  Can raise your blood pressure.
  8. Reduce your stress.  Chronic stress may contribute to high blood pressure.
  9. Monitor your blood pressure at home.  Check with your doctor about how often to do this.
  10. Get support.  We all need support from family and friends.

Now, that’s a pretty good list of Lifestyle Changes that apply to many people.  However, I am going to focus on Reducing Sodium in your Diet since that is one of the foundations for all recipes and meal plans on Cooking Heart Smart.  Below are my top 3 that you should start with.

  1. Hidden Sodium
  2. Read Food Labels
  3. Compare Brands

#1 Hidden Sodium

Beware of the most common places Sodium hides when grocery shopping.  Spend some time reading the ingredients and the food label of some of the foods you have in your kitchen right now.  I bet you will be surprised to find out how much sodium is in many of our day to day foods.  Take a look at some of the common foods blow that are known for their high amounts of Sodium.

  Snack foods (chips, nuts, crackers); Processed meats (hot dogs, lunchmeat, sausage); Canned foods and soups (tomato sauce, beans, soup broth); Packaged foods or sides (instant rice dishes, instant pasta dishes, ramen noodles); Sauces and condiments (ketchup, salad dressing, soy sauce); White bread and rolls (sandwich bread, bakery bread, hot dog and hamburger buns); Dairy products (cheese, yogurt, butter; Frozen foods (pot pies, vegetable with sauces, entrees).

#2 Read Food Labels

Read Food Labels.  In May of 2016 the FDA approved changes to the Food Label.  The new version would make it easier for consumers to make better informed food choices.  Some of the noticeable changes are the line additions for “Includes X Added Sugars” and “Potassium” replacing “Vitamin A” as a listed nutrient.  You will see the new label on many products in the grocery store today.  All food manufactures will have the new label format by July 2021.

For our purposes, I like to focus more on the milligrams per serving and not the Daily % Value (DV).  The DV is based on a 2,000 calorie diet and your diet may be different.  Therefore, it is more important to keep the total Sodium milligrams per meal less than 700.

#3 Compare Brands

Do your Homework – Not all Brands are Created Equal.  It is amazing how different the amount of Sodium is in the same product when comparing Brands.  I’ll give you a good example with peanut butter.  There are a lot of peanut butter brands, but they are not all the same in nutritional value.  Many Brands add salt and sugar.  Again, read the label.  Always look for all natural ingredients that you can pronounce.  Brand “A” is made with only peanuts and has ZERO Sodium and 2 grams of Sugar per 2 tablespoons.  Brand “B” is made from “Roasted Peanuts and Sugar, Contains 2% or Less of: Molasses, Fully Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Rapeseed and Soybean), Mono and Diglycerides, and Salt” with 150 milligrams of Sodium and 3 grams of Sugar per 2 tablespoons.  In conclusion, save yourself 150 milligrams of Sodium by choosing Brand “A”.

How Can Diabetes Affect Your Heart?

Diabetes and Your Heart

Diabetes is a disease when your blood sugar (Glucose) is too high.  Blood Glucose is your  body’s main source of energy and comes from the food you eat.  Insulin (produced by the pancreas) helps Glucose get into your cells to be used as energy.  When the body does not make, or cannot use the insulin it produces, then Glucose stays in your bloodstream and cannot reach the cells.  Too much Glucose in your bloodstream over time can cause many more health problems.

  • Heart Disease
  • Stroke
  • Kidney Disease
  • Eye Problems
  • Foot Problems
  • Nerve Damage
  • Foot Problems

There are many forms of Heart Disease including Heart Failure that are increased with Diabetes.  

  1. High Blood Pressure increases the force of blood through your arteries which in turn can damage your artery wall.  Your doctor will determine what is a good blood pressure number for your health situation.  Mine is 120/80 which I am happy to say I am finally able to maintain.
  2. Too much bad cholesterol (LDL) in your bloodstream can form plaque and damage in your arteries.  Yep, nailed this one, too.  All three of the arteries in my heart were more than 90% blocked.  Not good, but thank goodness for stents.
  3. High Triglycerides can cause hardening of the arteries.

Diet and Lifestyle changes can make a big difference in preventing or improving your chances of developing heart problems when you have diabetes.  

  • Maintain a Healthy Weight
  • Get Active
  • Eat Healthy Foods
  • Quit Smoking
  • Watch Your Alcohol Intake


3 Ways to Combine a Diabetes Diet with a Heart Healthy Diet

To me, a Diabetes Diet and a Heart Healthy Diet are really more Lifestyle Changes than diets.  The goal with both is to eat healthy with a focus on making better food choices.  Therefore, I am going to talk about Food Groups, Portion Control, and the 3 foundations for choosing recipes and building meal plans.

Food Groups:  Almost every source I have read recommends eating a variety of foods from all the Food Groups.  That being said, there are differences between them.  Since we are specifically talking about Diabetes and the Heart, I want to give you a comparison chart.  I created this chart because I found some slight differences between the sources which made me question, “which one should I use?”.  I thought,  “I’m a Diabetic with Heart problems”, probably best to build my own recommended group based on what works for me.  That’s when I started to create menus that include at least 3 Food Groups and are at least 15 grams of Carbohydrates (body needs at least 15 grams for energy).  

Portion Control.  What is a Serving?  What does a “Portion” look like?  I hear this question all the time.  Fact is that Restaurants, Fast-Food, and even Home Cooks, all have different definitions of a “Serving”.  Some use measurements like 1-cup green beans or 1/2-cup of cooked rice equals a serving.  Some use visual methods such as a closed fist or a deck of cards is equal to 3-ounces meat.  Either method works well for eating out and general meal planning.  However, in some instances I have found that measuring, more specifically, weighing your food is the most accurate method. For example, a 6-inch flour tortilla can be either 28 grams or 32 grams depending on the Brand.


Diabetes Self Management Tips and Resources

The resources listed below were designed for Diabetes, but they can also apply to those with Heart problems.  Many are common sense, overall good Lifestyle Choices that can benefit anyone.

  • Eat a Healthy Diet
  • Be Active
  • Maintain a Healthy Weight
  • Stop Smoking
  • Reduce Stress

Know Your Diabetic ABC’s

A is for A1C test.  Goal for many people with Diabetes is less than 7

B is for Blood Pressure.  140/90 is good, but your doctor will discuss what your goal should be.

C is for Cholesterol.  HDL is Good.  LDL is Bad.  Ask your doctor what your numbers should be.

S is for Smoking.  Smoking raises blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol.

Diabetes Self-Management Education and Support (DSMES)

There are many DSMES programs, online resources, and toolkits that can be very beneficial for Diabetics.

Johns Hopkins Medicine has a lot of information and useful tools on Diabetes.

Cooking Heart Smart can help with Recipes and Meal Plans that are designed to be low in Saturated Fat, Low in Sodium, and Carb friendly.  Be sure to try some new recipes and let me know what you think.  I always want to hear what you have to say so I can give you the information you need to Eat a Healthy Diet.

The Foundation for all Recipes and Meal Plans that I create are focused on Heart Health with Carb Control.

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