Coronary artery disease is not only the most common type of heart disease out there but also one of the leading causes of death worldwide. German researchers found that more than 30 percent of your risk of developing this form of heart disease is genetic. That still leaves 70 percent to lifestyle factors, which means there’s a lot you can do to reduce your risk.
“Prevention is critical,” says Dr. Cindy Yip, a director at Canada’s Heart & Stroke Foundation. “Women are vastly under aware of the threat they face.”
Studies show that almost half of all cardiometabolic deaths (those related to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes) are linked to a poor diet, including eating excessive amounts of sodium and processed meats, and not enough nuts, seeds and seafood. But eating healthy isn’t always easy, says Cheryl Strachan, a registered dietitian in Calgary and the author of 30-Minute Heart Healthy Cookbook. She focuses on helping clients try their hardest with what they can control. “We need to avoid blaming people for health problems when we’re all just doing our best to make it through the day,” Strachan says. “We need to support people in figuring out how to t healthy eating into their busy lives.” Here are some small, but powerful, changes.
Amp up the fruits and veggies
A Tufts University study found roughly one in seven cardiovascular deaths can be attributed to not eating enough fruit and one in 12 to not enough vegetables. Even adding a few extra servings makes a difference. Try a glass of unsalted tomato juice (a new study in Food Science & Nutrition found it lowered blood pressure and LDL cholesterol in Japanese adults who were at risk for cardiovascular disease) or a handful of blueberries (researchers at the University of East Anglia in Norwich found that eating a cup of blueberries every day reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease by up to 15 per cent). “A cup of blueberries helps, but you’ll probably see similar results from other foods rich in anthocyanins, such as blackberries, cherries or plums,” Strachan says. To cover your bases, she recommends a variety of richly coloured fruit and vegetables.
Pick your favourite pulse
“Try experimenting with more pulses, like dried beans, lentils and peas,” Strachan says. “There is growing evidence that incorporating a variety of pulses into your diet—aim for about 1/2 cup cooked—may have positive effects on cardiovascular health by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.”
Don’t ditch foods you love
“What better way to make someone crave bacon than to tell them ‘never, ever eat bacon’?” Strachan says. “It’s more about how much and how often.” She adds that eating bacon and other processed meats once a week doesn’t appear to result in worse outcomes—it’s eating them daily that’s the problem. “Think of these foods as making cameo appearances in your life,” Strachan says. “If you love them, having them occasionally is perfectly fine.”
Grains are good
“I almost always find people can benefit from eating more whole grains, and I don’t just mean bread products,” Strachan says. Bread can be high in sodium, so she recommends whole grains that you boil instead, including steel cut oats, barley, quinoa and brown rice. “Bulgur, farro and wheat berries are wheat-based products, but they’re much less processed than wheat flour-based foods and can be fun to experiment with,” she adds. “They have a hearty texture and contain a range of nutrients, including fibre, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, phenols and antioxidants that are good for your heart.”
See the whole picture
Exercise and stress management are as crucial as diet for heart health says Karie Cassell, a registered dietitian and life coach in Grande Prairie, Alta.
To make your new habits stick, concentrate on how the changes make you feel. “Your mental attitude is so important,” she says. “Make sure you’re doing these things, whether it’s eating healthy or walking every day, because you love life and feel good when you do them, not because your doctor told you to.”
Cheryl Strachan’s book is packed with easy recipes—including a deceptively decadent chocolate cashew spread—that will help keep your ticker in tip-top shape. 30-Minute Heart Healthy Cookbook, $23, amazon.ca.
This article was originally published in 2019; updated in 2021.