You Can’t Beat a Healthy Heart

by Rachel Quehl




It’s time that we have heart to heart about heart disease. All puns aside, as the number one cause of death in the world according to the World Health Organization, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is no laughing matter. An estimated 17.5 million people died from CVDs in 2012, representing 31% of all global deaths. Of these deaths, an estimated 7.4 million were due to coronary heart disease and 6.7 million were due to stroke, meaning that in all likelihood, we will all be impacted by CVD, whether it be a close family member, a friend, or even ourselves.


What is cardiovascular disease?

While I think it’s safe to say that we have all heard of CVD, there is definitely some confusion about what CVD actually is. Most people think of CVD as being only one disease, when really it is a collection of diseases impacting the structure and functions of the heart. This includes coronary artery disease (“clogging” of the arteries), stroke, arrhythmias (abnormal heart beat), and heart failure. While some forms of heart disease are hereditary, most can be prevented through healthy diet and lifestyle habits.


How do I know my risk?

While modifiable risk factors such as age, gender, and family history certainly play a role in it’s development, CVD is actually very preventable. About 80% of premature heart disease (under age 75) can be prevented through healthy behaviors, such as nutritious diet, physical activity, and abstaining from smoking.  Thus, it is important to examine your lifestyle in the context of CVD risk, and look at how your behaviours may be impacting your heart health.


Non-modifiable Risk Factors 

  • Age
  • Male gender
  • Family history
  • Ethnicity (Indigenous, South Asian, African)


Modifiable Risk Factors 

  • Unhealthy diet
  • Physical inactivity
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Dyslipidemia (high cholesterol)
  • Diabetes
  • Atrial fibrillation


Eating for a Healthy Heart

There are some relatively simple dietary changes you can make that can have a big impact on your risk of CVD. Remember that healthy eating is not “all or nothing”. Starting by incorporating small changes can have a big impact, both on your overall health and your heart. The following recommendations come from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the World Health Organization.

  • Consume under 2000 mg of sodium per day. Dietary sodium intake has a major impact on blood pressure, and thus CVD risk. To lower your sodium intake, choose processed, packaged foods less often and take the salt shaker off the table. When choosing packaged foods, look for labels that contain less than 200 mg of sodium per serving. Eating out less often also lowers your sodium intake, as restaurant and take-out food is a big source of hidden sodium.
  • Keep intake of added sugars to under 5 to 10% of total calories; 10% is about 12 tsp, or 50g of added sugar per day. Added sugars in sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juices, sweets, and desserts raise your triglyceride (a type of fat) levels in your blood, clogging your arteries and increasing your risk of CVD.
  • Get your fibre! A total of 25 g per day for is recommended for women, and 38 g per day for men. Fibre lowers cholesterol, increases satiety, and aids in weight loss. Get fibre from fruits and vegetables, whole grains such as quinoa, oats, and brown rice, pulses, and nuts/seeds.


Recent CVD research has looked more at the impact of eating patterns rather than individual nutrients or food groups on. The Mediterranean–Style diet and DASH diet are two such eating patterns that have been demonstrated to decrease CVD risk.


Mediterranean-Style Diet

The Mediterranean diet is modeled after the type of diet typically consumed in Greece and Southern Italy. The diet is characterized by high consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds. Olive oil is included as an important unsaturated fat source. Dairy products, fish, poultry, and eggs are consumed in low to moderate amounts, and little red meat is eaten. Wine is also included in moderation. Given the emphasis on olive oil and nuts, the Mediterranean diet is actually considered to be a higher fat diet. However, this fat is mostly of the unsaturated variety. The Mediterranean diet is much lower in saturated fats than the typical North American diet.



The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet was specifically developed to prevent and treat high blood pressure. Many of its recommendations are similar to Canada’s Food Guide, although it has more of an emphasis on vegetables and fruit, and more strongly encourages consumption of whole grains. It also includes guidelines for sweets and added sugar. New research suggests that this diet is just as effective when lean beef and pork are included in moderation.


Living a Heart Healthy Lifestyle

While good nutrition is a key part of heart health, other lifestyle factors also play a large role in determining CVD risk. The following recommendations come from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, but are similarly echoed by the American Heart Association as well.

  • Be physically active for least 150 minutes per week. Activity should be moderate to vigorous in intensity, and in increments of 10 minutes or more. Physical activity has benefits to heart health independent of weight loss, as it strengthens the heart muscle, increase oxygenation to tissues, and lowers blood pressure.
  • Limit your alcohol intake to less than 15 drinks per week for men (no more than 3 in one day) and 10 drinks per week for women (no more than 2 in one day).
  • Quit smoking. Quitting smoking has an immediate impact on CVD risk. Within one year of quitting, your CVD risk is about half of a smoker’s; within five years, your risk becomes that of a non-smoker’s.
  • Find ways to manage your stress. This could be through exercise, meditation, journaling, or a monthly massage; really, whatever works best for you!