If your doctor has told you that you need to take proactive steps to lower your blood pressure or improve your cardiovascular health, knowing where to start can feel overwhelming. It’s not easy to break habits that have been in place for years and are so automatic that you often do them without even thinking about it.
The encouraging news is that 90% of heart disease is preventable through diet and lifestyle habits. Cardiologist dr. Kaustubh Dabhadkar, MD, MPH, MBA, FACC, who specializes in preventative cardiology, says the key to making lasting changes is to make them gradually and deliberately. This, he says, will be more effective than trying to change the entire way you eat and live all at once.
According to the cardiologist Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, who is also professor of nutrition at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and professor of medicine at Tufts School of Medicine, there’s one change in particular that can make a huge difference when it comes to heart health and that’s what recommends people focus on the first: cooking more.
Related: Your Live-Well Guide to Maintaining Heart Health and Preventing Heart Disease
How cooking your own food can improve heart health
The reason Dr. Mozaffarian says cooking can have such a major impact on heart health is that it minimizes the amount of overly processed foods someone would otherwise eat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of the sodium Americans consume comes from overly processed foods or meals that they consume. This is crucial because a high sodium diet is directly linked to high blood pressure and poor cardiovascular health.
When you cook your foods, you can control all the ingredients that are used, not just the salt but also the refined carbohydrates, sugar and saturated fats, all of which are also linked to an increased risk of heart disease. “A diet high in calories, especially saturated fat, trans fat, and refined carbohydrates, increases levels of bad fats in the body as well as insulin levels,” says Dr. Dabhadkar. “A combination of these increases the deposition of cholesterol in the arteries leading to hardening of the arteries and the buildup of plaque in the arteries.”
Related: Make these 7 lifestyle changes for a healthier heart
According to Dr Dabhadkar, the worst foods for heart health are potato chips, ice cream and sugary drinks. “All three of these are readily available in most homes and in nearly any restaurant. Plus, we often habitually consume them mindlessly,” he says. When cooking meals at home, focus on foods that are good sources of fiber and unsaturated fat and are low on the glycemic index.
Again, Dr. Dabhadkar points out that small, gradual changes are the way to go when it comes to improving heart health. If you’re not used to cooking, start by making yourself one more meal a week than you normally would. Another way to make gradual changes, he says, is to cut out a nutrient-deficient food you normally eat a week, replacing it with something that supports heart health instead. For example, if you’re used to eating chips every day for lunch, replace them with a handful of nuts, which are still crunchy but much more nutrient-dense.
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More changes that support heart health
If 2023 is the year you really want to focus on heart health, Dr. Mozaffarian recommends telling your friends and family about your goal. Even better, he says find other people who support him. Maybe that means joining a Facebook group where people share their favorite heart-healthy recipes. Or it could be telling a friend about your goal to walk more and committing to a 30-minute walk and chat a couple times a week. You could also challenge a friend with a similar heart-health goal to a weekly cooking challenge, where you take turns choosing a heart-healthy food to cook with and message each other photos of your culinary creations.
Dr. Dabhadkar says another heart-healthy tip when it comes to eating is to be mindful while eating instead of eating while watching TV or on a computer. Not only will you enjoy your food more because you focus on the flavors, but you’re more likely to avoid overeating.
She also says getting enough sleep, managing stress, getting regular exercise and maintaining social connections are all important factors in heart health. Scientific studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation are risk factors for heart disease. Finding ways to connect with others will help mitigate this risk, especially when combined with movement.
You have the power to improve your heart health, which is really encouraging. Making small, gradual changes will have a major impact. Just take one meal at a time.
Next, check out these easy ingredient swaps to make recipes more heart-healthy.