Nutrition-wise blog

Four changes to boost heart health

By Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. March 29, 2016

It is well known that eating a healthy diet, exercising, not smoking and having a healthy percentage of body fat will reduce your risk of heart disease. In fact, the American Heart Association has a goal of encouraging more people to adopt these characteristics to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.

Why these four? Because of the effects they have on what happens inside our bodies — lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and fasting blood sugar levels, among other measures. Scientists refer to these measures as biomarkers.

A group of researchers studied the effects of healthy lifestyle characteristics on certain biomarkers. They used the 2003–2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, which includes data on four healthy lifestyle characteristics: physical activity, healthy eating, smoking status and body fat percentage.

The purpose of the study was twofold:

  • Estimate the prevalence of these healthy lifestyle characteristics among U.S. adults.
  • Determine what impact these characteristics have on biomarkers such as cholesterol, blood pressure and fasting blood sugar levels.

The researchers found that very few U.S. adults — less than 3 percent — had all four healthy lifestyle habits. Shockingly, 11 percent had none of the healthy lifestyle characteristics.

These finding are disappointing because having more of these healthy lifestyle characteristics is associated with more favorable biomarker measurements, which translates into lower risk of developing chronic diseases.

Where do you fall? Here are a few of the specifics from the study and recommendations for lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease:

Characteristics Findings and recommendations
Don't smoke 71.5 % of adults don't smoke. If you smoke, seek assistance to stop.
Be active 46.5 % of adults are physically active. Join them by getting 30-60 minutes of activity each day.
Eat healthy 37.9 % of adults consume a healthy diet. Can you count yourself in that group? Give you diet an honest assessment. What choices can improve your diet? Start by eating out less or changing your snacking habits.
Maintain normal percent body fat 9.6 % of adults have a normal percentage of body fat. If you're among the majority who don't, the advice above can help.

The researchers determined how each lifestyle characteristic affected each specific biomarker. Overall, adults with at least one or two healthy lifestyle characteristics have favorable biomarkers levels.

As you might expect, adults with three or four healthy lifestyle characteristics have more favorable biomarker levels.

Beyond the obvious, this research supports the idea that it need not be all-or- nothing. Taking steps, even if they seem small, can reduce your risk of heart disease.

What healthy lifestyle characteristics do you have? Where do you see opportunities to make improvements?

March 29, 2016