By Sean Danahy RD, LDN
Sean Danahy is a registered dietitian and the Culinary Director for Holiday Retirement’s family of senior living communities where he applies his expertise in food science, dietary management, and menu development to help older adults live healthier lives.
As a registered dietitian and chef for Holiday Retirement communities, I often get questions about wellness and diets, especially as it relates to older adults. I always like to first focus on why eating for the heart matters, because the statistics could not be more apparent that we have a collective need to be more aware and proactive when it comes to the health and maintenance of our loved ones hearts.
Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 647,457 deaths each year. According to a 2019 report by the American Heart Association, 89.3% of men and 91.8% of women age 80 or older have one or more type of cardiovascular disease (CVD), and 65% of people who die of coronary heart disease (CHD) are 65 or older. Of additional concern is that conditions of the heart and blood vessels like diabetes and kidney disease are interrelated with several other comorbidities, which are also on the rise in older populations.
While diet is not the only cause of heart disease, it’s one of the causes that we largely have control over. Diet can be the most direct way to prevent or reverse conditions of the circulatory system. The first step to eating for the heart is knowing the “why,” which provides context to the need for awareness. The next step is to identify the “what” -- the conditions we stand to prevent or treat. The last step is the “how.” This is the behavior and habits that can be increased or decreased to improve or prevent these conditions.
Why Do Heart Conditions Develop?
The heart is essentially the engine room of our bodies, transporting nutrients, hormones, and oxygen to the cells as well as waste to the lungs and kidneys for excretion. The heart pumps the literal “life blood” throughout a complex network of vessels.
Unfortunately, the circulatory system is susceptible to many types of complications of the heart and vessels. Common heart conditions such as hypertension and coronary artery disease (CAD) are often the byproduct of prolonged environmental stressors such as diet. This can exacerbate existing genetic predispositions to cardiovascular conditions. The continuous transport of nutrients and waste can cause build up of arterial plaque. This progressively inhibits proper blood flow and causes the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body.
Hypertension is most often associated with sodium intake, while coronary artery disease is a condition of excessive plaque buildup. CAD is typically related to dietary cholesterol and fat intake. These two diseases tend to be the most commonly known conditions representing heart disease, so when people talk about eating for your heart, it’s most often related to preventing or reducing the impact of this through a balanced diet.
What Are the Types of Heart Disease?
Cardiovascular disease can refer to a number of conditions of the cardiovascular system. These can include:
When a blood clot blocks the flow of oxygen and blood to the heart from an artery, a heart attack occurs. A clot can form when a fatty deposit on the arteries, also known as plaque, ruptures and blocks a heart artery.
There are two types of strokes: An ischemic stroke and a hemorrhagic stroke. When one of the brain’s blood vessels gets blocked, cutting off blood supply to part of the brain, an ischemic stroke can occur. A hemorrhagic stroke is often tied to high blood pressure and happens when a blood vessel in the brain bursts.
Heart failure is a chronic, progressive condition. Heart failure occurs when the body isn’t getting as much oxygen and blood as it needs. This is likely due to conditions such as high blood pressure or coronary artery disease, which can narrow the heart’s arteries, hindering its ability to fill and pump efficiently.
Abnormal heart rhythm is known as an arrhythmia. Whether your heart is beating too slow or too fast, it can affect the way your heart is working to meet your body’s needs for blood and oxygen.
Heart Valve Issues
Your heart valves help with healthy blood circulation. Heart valve problems occur when blood leaks through the valves of the heart because the valves aren’t shutting properly.
The good news is that through healthy lifestyle changes, you can prevent or reverse some of these conditions.
How Do You Eat for Heart Health?
Healthy habits such as physical activity are an essential component to wellness that’s proven to compliment dietary changes. One of the benefits of living in an independent living community like Holiday Retirement is that following a heart-healthy diet and movement plan is easy because these opportunities are intentionally incorporated into the community. Our Holiday Retirement communities provide a Healthy Holiday Meal Program that conforms to the USDA’s dietary guidelines for healthy Americans, and features the kcals, sodium, carbohydrates, and saturated fat content for each meal. Menus feature a “healthy choice” option and snack bars include fruits. There’s also plenty of opportunities for physical activity with fitness classes, outdoor walking trails, and activity calendars that focus on body-based activities.
Tips for eating for heart health include:
Eat Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
Eat fresh, whole foods like leafy greens and fruits. These are healthy alternatives to processed foods, which contain high levels of sodium. Another benefit of eating fruit and vegetables is the fiber that they provide. Fiber not only helps you have regular bowel movements and promotes gut health, it also binds fats and cholesterols that we consume in foods and helps prevent absorption to some extent. I sometimes compare it to the way fibrous things like paper towels and sponges are used to bind and clean up spills in the kitchen.
Eat Healthy Fats
Incorporate foods into your diet that contain “healthy” fats such as salmon, which is a fatty fish. Healthy fats provide omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. They’re a heart healthy food that most Americans do not consume enough of. You can also get healthy fat from foods such as salt-free nuts like walnuts. Nuts provide a litany of micronutrients like magnesium, copper, and manganese.
Reduce Sodium Intake
Controlling and reducing sodium intake is a widely known approach to treating hypertension, also known as high blood pressure (HBP). The more salt we eat, the more fluid we retain, and the more pressure is exerted on the walls of our circulatory system. Reduce sodium consumption by being more aware of the foods you eat, and identifying positive changes as well as problematic food and habits that lead to increased sodium intake.
Convenience foods and processed foods tend to have the highest amount of salt. The reason for this is that salt is both a preserver of foods as well as a seasoning that’s pleasurable. Many large food manufacturing companies invest heavily in research to market test food products and develop flavor combinations to increase the addictive nature of foods. This is one of the most challenging aspects of controlling our consumption of them.
Read Nutrition Labels
Making a point to read nutrition labels is one way to increase our awareness of salt content within foods. Cooking fresh foods is another means to control how much salt we take in. We can still enjoy delicious foods by seasoning them with fresh herbs and spices instead of excessive salt use.
Similar to sodium content in foods, many processed foods contribute to our excessive and unintentional intake of fats and cholesterol. Reading nutrition labels will increase our awareness of serving size and fat/cholesterol content. Increasing our home cooking and consumption of vegetables and fruits serves to improve cholesterol levels over time without contributing to cholesterol themselves.
Do a Salt Detox
We can all stand to detox from excessive salt intake. Some health experts propose that you can reset your taste buds in just three weeks. The American Heart Association promotes a 21-day challenge that educates people on common sodium sources. On average, American adults consume more than 3400 mg of sodium, which is more than double the AHA recommended limit and 1300 mg more than the USDA’s recommended daily intake.
Of course, fast food and snacks contribute to our excessive salt intake, but condiments such as salad dressing are easy to overlook. Eating a salad can contribute significantly to salt intake just by the type and amount of salad dressing that you use. Choosing low sodium alternatives is always a good step to mitigating the amount of salt we consume. Reducing processed foods will help reduce hidden sources of sodium.
Lower Cholesterol Levels Through Diet
Preventing coronary artery disease and reducing our risk for complications such as stroke and heart attack are tied to cholesterol and fat consumption.
The “good cholesterol” (HDL) and the “bad cholesterol” (LDL) are the metrics we use to track cholesterol levels in our blood. What makes HDL “good” is that it acts to remove plaque deposits throughout our circulatory system. LDL cholesterol increases the buildup of plaque.
Cholesterol only comes from animal products. That’s why vegetarian and vegan diets are generally practiced by people attempting to reduce or avoid suboptimal cholesterol levels. Likewise, controlling our consumption of saturated fats, another component of animal-based food (except for coconut and palm oils), is a recommendation from the USDA, CDC, and Heart Association.
The “Heart Health” Takeaway
We could all stand to cut back on sodium, fat, and cholesterol while increasing our cardiovascular fitness through regular exercise. Cooking with fresh, whole foods, reducing processed food products, and simply being more mindful of our relationship with food can help us improve our heart health and prevent the progression of heart disease. For older adults who are at higher risk for heart conditions, senior living communities like Holiday Retirement can make positive changes easier to incorporate into residents’ lifestyles because of features like healthy menu options, daily opportunities for movement and fitness, lecture series on health topics, and special events that focus on well-being.
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