Heart Health for Women

Contributors: Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN
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In the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. Diet, lifestyle choices and a few other key factors play a big role in a wide range of heart conditions. Take care of your heart by choosing foods to promote overall health.

Fruits and Vegetables Matter

When it comes to loading your plate, fruits and vegetables are where it's at. Not only are they high in dietary fiber and antioxidants, they also can help keep blood pressure in check. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke. What makes fruits and vegetables so good? They are packed with potassium, a mineral that has been shown to lower blood pressure in clinical studies.

Aiming for 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 2 ½ cups of vegetables daily, is a good way to make sure you’re meeting your potassium goals. Plus, research has shown that fruit and vegetable intake is associated with a reduced risk for many chronic diseases, including heart disease.

Fat Matters for the Heart

The type of fat you eat also makes a difference. According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy eating pattern should limit saturated fat to less than 10% total calories. An eating plan high in saturated fat may increase the risk for heart disease. Foods such as bacon, sausages, fatty meats, butter, ice cream and other full-fat dairy foods can be high in saturated fat.

Current recommendations also include avoiding trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils. These fats can clog arteries and raise cholesterol levels. Trans fats can be found in commercial baked goods and fried foods.

Replacing sources of saturated fat and trans fat with unsaturated fats has been shown to be beneficial in reducing “bad” cholesterol levels and may help lower the risk for heart disease. Foods such as olive oil, canola oil, avocados, nuts and seeds contain unsaturated fat.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a special type of unsaturated fat commonly found in fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and herring. They also are found in walnuts and flaxseed. Fish is a good source of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), whereas nuts and seeds contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Because these foods contain different types of omega-3 fatty acids, it is good to include a variety in your eating plan. (Women who are of childbearing age, pregnant or breastfeeding should consult the “Advice about Eating Fish” from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.)

Stay Active for Heart Health

For individuals with overweight or obesity, gradual weight loss can result in overall better health. Even a 3 to 5% loss in body weight can lead to health improvements in people with risk factors for heart disease. Regular physical activity also can be beneficial. Get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, with some activity on most days of the week. More moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity may be required for weight loss, so be sure to check with your physician before starting an exercise program.

Other Risk Factors

While you can change what you eat and whether you are physically active, there are some risk factors for heart disease you cannot change. These include:

  • Aging: The risk for heart disease increases with age.
  • Family History: Having a close blood relative, such as a parent or sibling, with heart disease increases your risk of having heart disease.
  • Race: Some races have a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Previous Heart Attack: A history for past heart attacks can increase the odds of having another one in the future. However, in this case, there are things you can do to reduce your risk, such as eating healthfully and participating in cardiac rehab.

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