Small Changes You Can Make to be More Heart Healthy

Do more. Eat right. Know your numbers. It can't be that simple, right? Northwestern Medicine cardiologist Clyde Yancy, MD says it is that simple, and has some other little known facts that can help all of us improve our heart health. 

While many of us may be focused on maintaining New Year's resolutions after overindulging during the numerous festivities of the holiday season, Dr. Yancy says there are some treats to be enjoyed throughout the year, if done in moderation and part of an overall healthy diet.

"Chocolate can be healthy because it's rich with cocoa and flavonoids," explained Yancy, who is chief of cardiology at Northwestern's Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. "The cocoa increases blood flow, which can help mood and maybe even make you smarter, and flavonoids reduce inflammation, promoting healthy arteries and help fight aging by preventing and repairing cellular damage."

Flavonoids may also protect against dementia, Alzheimer's disease and some cancers. Before rushing off  to eat a pound of dark chocolate, Yancy reminds us that moderation is the key. While chocolate may have healthy components, the high levels of sugar and fat can be detrimental to heart health if consumed in high quantities.

Another surprisingly heart healthy item is wine, red or white, but Yancy says it is likely not because of the alcohol. "A substance in wine known as resveratrol, which is found in the skins and seeds of grapes, may possess a number of benefits that protect the heart," said Yancy. Since red wines often have extended contact time with the grape's skins, they will naturally have higher levels of resveratrol. But, white wines also have healthy elements. Again, moderation is the key issue – too much wine will limit any health benefits of moderate consumption.

"While treats like chocolate and wine are fine, they must be part of an overall healthy diet that includes foods rich in nutrients," claims Yancy. One item that no diet should lack is fiber, specifically soluble fiber, which is shown to lower both bad cholesterol and risk of diabetes. We often think of oatmeal when we talk about fiber, but Yancy says that fiber can be found in some other surprising places. An apple a day keeps the doctor away is true because of the high fiber content in apples, and there's even more fiber in raspberries. The tip here is to eat the most colorful fruit to get the most fiber.

Beyond eating nutritious foods, exercise is a necessary part of any heart healthy lifestyle. All exercise is good for your heart, especially cardiovascular or aerobic activity sessions lasting 30 minutes, at least three to four times per week. Yancy says women shouldn't be as worried about eliminating a little extra bottom fat, but should focus more on fat around the organs, like belly fat. "Yes, fat is bad, but some kinds of body fat are not quite as bad as others," explained Yancy. "To keep a check on dangerous belly fat, we can measure this using the waist to hip ratio. With a ratio above 0.8 for women and 1.0 for men, the risk of heart disease increases."

Yancy believes that rather than just adopting the same resolution to lose weight, think more about the overall commitment to health with a balanced diet and exercise. "When you lead a healthy lifestyle that is focused on improving your overall wellbeing, the weight loss will come naturally," said Yancy. "Not only will you feel and look better, but your heart will be stronger and healthier."

For more information about heart care at Northwestern's Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, visit heart.nmh.org. To schedule an appointment please call 312-926-0779. Also, visit the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute's Facebook page at facebook.com/bluhmcardiovascularinstitute.