You know how important it is to take care of your heart, but it can be difficult to know the exact steps you need to take to keep your heart healthy.
How necessary is taking aspirin to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke? Does more good cholesterol really help to offset bad cholesterol? And are egg yolks heart healthy or not? Not knowing the answers to these questions is completely understandable, with how quickly recommendations can change.
“It can be tricky knowing what to do when it comes to improving your heart health because, like all science and medicine, it’s an ever-evolving field,” Brittany Owen, a cardiologist at UT Physicians and Memorial Hermann in Houston, Texas, told HuffPost. “There’s also a lot of misinformation on the internet — as with most topics — so it can be hard to find the truth.”
Another obstacle: Every body is different, so you won’t necessarily respond to certain treatments or lifestyle changes the way someone else will. “For that reason, heart-healthy guidelines need to be adapted and patient-centered,” Lisa MoskovitzNew York-based registered dietitian and author of “The core 3 plan for healthy eating,” said.
To clear up some of the confusion, read on for the commonly accepted “rules” for heart health that you can throw out once and for all, according to experts.
1. You must take aspirin daily.
Daily use of aspirin may help prevent heart attacks and strokes in some people (by interfering with the clotting of the blood, according to the Mayo Clinic), but the regime is not for everyone. It comes with an added risk of serious side effects, such as gastrointestinal bleeding, and therefore: it is no longer a general recommendation by the US Preventative Services Task Force.
“Depending on your background and medical status, this practice is something that can be beneficial to your heart health or can be extremely risky,” said Michael Weinrauch, a New Jersey-based cardiologist and the chair of cardiology at Overlook Medical Center. “In most cases, it’s not necessary at all.”
People aged 40-59 who are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and have no history of it should decide with their doctor whether to start taking aspirin, for example if you are a 45-year-old smoker with diabetes. Meanwhile, people 60 years of age or older who do not have heart disease should not start taking aspirin.
“If you’ve had a heart attack or stent or bypass surgery, you’ll benefit from aspirin regardless of your age,” Weinrauch said. “Likewise, if you haven’t had a heart attack, stent, or bypass but have a high calcium score (a test that detects plaque in coronary arteries), you’ll likely benefit from aspirin.”
Bottom Line: Don’t take aspirin every day before consulting your doctor — and if you suspect a heart attack, call 911.
2. Sea salt is healthier than table salt.
Sea salt is less processed than table salt and contains trace elements, but both have the same basic nutritional value.
“Your body processes them the exact same way,” Owen said, so regardless of the type of salt you prefer, too much will negatively affect your blood pressure and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
It is recommended to limit your sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams — or 1 teaspoon — per day.
3. Coconut oil is healthier for cooking.
Although virgin coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids (which is thought to increase HDL – also known as the “good” cholesterol) and has antimicrobial and antioxidant benefitsit’s still alarmingly high in saturated fats about 50% more than butteraccording to the Mayo Clinic.
“Consuming too much saturated fat puts individuals at high risk of stroke or other cardiovascular disease,” Weinrauch said, by increasing serum LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol. Instead, adapt your diet to American Heart Association recommendations to participate in a diet that 6% or less of your daily calorie intake consists of saturated fat.”
If you need an alternative, he added, try small amounts of extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil.
4. Vaping is better for you than smoking.
“Breathing in hot air, be it a cigarette, a vape pen or a burning building, is never good for the lungs no matter how you cut it,” Owen said. “With vaping come toxic chemicals and oils that damage the lungs.”
And when you vape with nicotine, you’re just trading your cigarette addiction for an addiction to a vape pen. “Nicotine is not only addictive, it can also raise your blood pressure and lead to hypertension,” Owen said. “None of this is good for your body.”
If you’re looking to quit smoking, Owen recommends discussing it with your health care provider, as they have many methods to assist you in your success.
5. The energizing effects of coffee are hard on the heart.
It turns out to be roughly drinking two or three cups of coffee a day is associated with a lower risk of heart disease ― and this applies to both people with and without cardiovascular disease.
However, take heart (pun fully intended) if you have an arrhythmia or extra heartbeats (premature ventricular contractions or premature atrial contractions). “The caffeine in coffee can stimulate and worsen palpitations,” Owen said.
6. As long as I stay within the recommended daily amount of alcohol, my heart is safe from harm.
According to the European Society of Cardiology, the levels of alcohol consumption currently considered safe by some countries have been associated with the development of heart failure. It is recommended that if you drink, that you limit your weekly consumption to less than one bottle of wine or less than three and a half 500ml cans containing 4.5% beer.
Although it has been shown that red wine improve heart health (the antioxidants it contains may increase the amount of good cholesterol and protect against the build-up of bad cholesterol.) That’s not the whole story.
“Like most things, you should consume alcohol in moderation and you cannot ignore the negative effects or risks of alcohol consumption,” Owen said. “If you develop heart problems, it is not necessary that you start drinking red wine to improve your results.”
With regard to some heart conditions, such as heart failure, “alcohol has been shown to cause and worsen this disease,” Owen said. “It would be argued that these individuals should not consume alcohol to achieve better heart health.”
7. Ten thousand steps a day can replace all cardiovascular activity.
“While it’s important for your overall health not to sit, walking 10,000 steps a day isn’t enough to prevent cardiovascular disease,” Owen said.
The key is to get moderate cardiovascular activity. So if you walk slowly, you won’t reap as many benefits as if your activity was heavier. If you prefer walking, try increasing them by increasing your speed or using light weights. The way to know you’re doing moderate-intensity cardio is when your heart rate goes up with exercise and you sweat a little.
“If you can’t do that at your current fitness level, try slowly increasing your activity level each week until you reach this goal,” Owen said.
8. It’s best to eat only protein.
This heart health rule goes back to the old belief that eggs (especially egg yolks) were bad because they are a rich source of dietary cholesterol. But the yolk also contains all the other beneficial nutrients (such as lutein, folate, riboflavin and vitamins A, B12, D and K), many of which are essential and protective against disease, including heart disease.
a study found that people who regularly ate eggs had more large HDL molecules in their blood, which help clear cholesterol from the arteries and protect against blockages that can lead to heart attacks and strokes, while people with fewer eggs had more harmful metabolites in their blood that are linked to heart disease.
“Although the yellowish center does contain saturated fat (about 1-2 grams per egg), you can safely consume a certain amount even on a heart-healthy diet,” Moskivitz said.
Eating eggs in moderation may seem like three to five whole eggs a week, in addition to many cholesterol- and blood pressure-lowering foods, such as oatmeal, avocado, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
9. All fats are bad for your heart.
There are four different types of fats in our foods and some of them are an important part of a balanced diet.
Some kind of fat to completely nix for the sake of your heart? Trans fats – found in many processed foods and baked goods. These fats raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association. (To stay clear, avoid any products with “partially hydrogenated oils” on the ingredient label.)
The other to limit your intake is saturated fats, which occur naturally in red meat, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils (for example, coconut and palm). They can also be found in fried foods and baked goods. Like trans fats, they raise bad cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatsOn the other hand, it’s thought to lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, Moskovitz said. These healthy fats can be found in oils such as olive oil and sunflower, nuts and seeds such as walnuts and pumpkin, and can also be found in avocados and peanut butter.
Omega-3 fatty acids fall into the polyunsaturated fat category and are found in fatty fish, such as salmon and herring. Plant-based options include chia seeds, hemp seeds, and Brussels sprouts.
10. Large amounts of good cholesterol can offset bad cholesterol.
Because good cholesterol absorbs bad cholesterol and it returns to the liver to be flushed out of the body, it would make sense the higher your good cholesterol levels, the better, to help offset the bad.
However, it turns out that people with extremely high good cholesterol levels are at a higher risk of heart disease. Researchers have yet to find out the reasons whybut genetic factors may be in play.
“When it comes to good cholesterol, it seems like it has to be just right — not too low and not too high,” Owen said. “Ideally, your good cholesterol should be above 40 but below 90 to prevent heart disease.”
Things like exercising more, quitting smoking, and controlling your blood pressure and blood sugar can all be done play a positive role in increasing your good cholesterol levels – and of course maintaining a heart-healthy diet, a la the Mediterranean or DASH diets.
“Research shows that sugar may also play a much larger role in elevated serum cholesterol,” Moskovitz said. “Instead of scanning the nutrition label for cholesterol, focus on total saturated fat and added sugar.”