Heart Health Primer

Even small steps toward a healthier lifestyle can make a big difference in keeping your heart healthy. This article shows you how knowledge, nutrition, and activity can help you improve your heart health. Along with your healthcare provider’s guidance, this can help you set goals to take better care of your heart.

Heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease

Heart disease includes several problems, some of which are related to the buildup of plaque in the walls of arteries, also known as atherosclerosis. Plaque causes the arteries to narrow, making it harder for blood to flow. When your blood vessels become narrowed and clogged, you may have these problems:

  • Angina: a type of pain you may feel in your chest, arms, shoulders or back. The pain may be more intense when your heart beats faster, such as when you exercise. It may also go away when you rest. You may sweat a lot and feel very weak. If you experience chest pain while active, contact your healthcare provider.
  • Heart attack: when your heart can’t get enough blood because a blood vessel in or near your heart becomes blocked. During a heart attack, you may have chest pain with nausea, indigestion, extreme weakness and sweating, or you may have no symptoms at all. If your chest pain persists, call 911.
  • Stroke: when the blood supply to your brain is blocked. If you have sudden trouble walking, speaking and understanding, paralysis or numbness on one side of your body or face, trouble seeing, or severe headache, call 911.

Other types of heart problems

  • Heart failure: when the heart is not pumping as well as it should. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, leg, ankle or foot swelling, rapid or irregular heartbeat, difficulty exercising, persistent cough or other symptoms.
  • Abnormal heart rhythms: when the heart beats too fast, too slowly or in an irregular way. The result can be an insufficient amount of blood being pumped to meet the body’s needs. Some abnormal heart rhythms require medical treatment to avoid other complications, such as a heart attack or stroke.
  • Heart valve problems: involve the doors between your heart’s chambers. If they don’t close or open properly, blood can leak through or leak backward.
  • Peripheral arterial disease, or PAD, can happen when the openings in your blood vessels narrow and your legs and feet don’t get enough blood. You may feel leg pain when you walk or exercise. Some people feel numbness or tingling in their feet or legs or have sores that heal slowly.

Risk factors for heart disease

There are two kinds of risk factors for heart disease: those you cannot change, and those you can.

 Risk factors you cannot change

  • Age: Your risk for heart disease increases as you age.
  • Gender: Women over age 55 and past menopause are at higher risk for heart disease.
  • Family history: A family history of early heart disease also puts you at greater risk.

Risk factors you can change

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes and prediabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Stress

Living a heart healthy lifestyle

  • Get more active. Try to exercise for about 30 minutes, most days of the week. This can lower your blood pressure, raise your good cholesterol level and lower your bad cholesterol level. It also makes it easier to manage your weight, gives you more energy, helps you cope with stress and helps you sleep better. Check with your healthcare provider before you start any physical activity program.
  • Aim for a healthy weight. If you are overweight, weight loss can help lower your blood pressure and decrease the burden on your heart and joints.
  • Eat a healthy diet. This can help you lower both cholesterol and blood pressure. Trans fats can raise your bad cholesterol level and fiber can help to lower it. Choose more heart-healthy fats, such as olive oil. Bake, boil or broil, rather than fry foods. Choose lean cuts of meat and trim any visible fat. Include fish and poultry in your diet at least a few times a week. Limit high-calorie and high-fat desserts.

Heart health products from your pharmacy

  • Home blood pressure monitors: Taking your blood pressure at home can give you the results to help guide your healthcare provider about making changes in your blood pressure or heart medicines, if necessary. Many pharmacies offer a variety of arm and wrist models for home blood pressure monitoring. Most devices use a band (or cuff) that goes around your arm and a digital display for the readings. Automatic arm or wrist blood pressure monitors are easy to use; just wrap the cuff around your arm, press a button and your blood pressure appears on the screen.
  • Home blood cholesterol tests: your pharmacy offers products that let you measure your blood cholesterol at home and find out if you are at risk of heart disease in minutes.
  • Pedometers: If you walk outside or on a treadmill a lot during your day, check your pharmacy for a pedometer to help you count your steps. Some pedometers also measure distance, time or the number of calories you burn.
  • Aspirin: People who are at high risk for a heart attack, or have already had one, may find it helpful to take a daily, low dose of aspirin. This can help prevent blood clots. Ask your healthcare provider if it is right for you.
  • Fitness monitors: Check at your pharmacy for heart rate monitors and activity monitors, or you can simply check your pulse to measure your heart rate. When you feel your pulse, count the number of beats in 15 seconds. Multiply this number by 4 to calculate your beats per minute.
  • Pulse oximeters: If you don’t have enough oxygen in your blood, you may feel shortness of breath. You can measure your blood’s oxygen level with a small tool called a pulse oximeter that clips onto your finger. It also shows how well your lungs take in oxygen and send it throughout your body.
  • Pillboxes: A pillbox can help you organize your medicines and keep you from forgetting to take your daily doses.


Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance. The body makes most of its cholesterol, but some also comes from animal-based foods we eat, such as dairy, eggs, butter, meat, bacon and full-fat ice cream. Avoid these high-fat products and eat foods high in soluble fiber, such as whole grain cereals, fruits and legumes, which help prevent the body from absorbing cholesterol.

Cholesterol raises your risk for heart and blood vessel disease. There are two kinds of cholesterol in your blood:

  • Bad (LDL) cholesterol sticks to the inside of your blood vessels and narrows them.
  • Good cholesterol (HDL) helps your body get rid of some of the bad cholesterol and protects you from heart and blood vessel disease.
  • Triglycerides are another type of fat in your body, and are used for energy. High triglycerides raise your risk for heart attacks and strokes.

Recognizing high blood pressure

High blood pressure usually has no symptoms. Some people with high blood pressure don’t know they have it. Your healthcare provider should check your blood pressure at each office visit. Between doctor visits, get a free blood pressure reading at your local pharmacy or Healthcare Clinic.

Understanding your blood pressure results

Two numbers are used to describe blood pressure, which is the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. The higher number, called the systolic pressure, is when your heartbeats, pumping blood. The lower number, or diastolic pressure, is when your heart is at rest, between beats. You have high blood pressure if the top number, bottom number or both are too high.

Dangers of high blood pressure

High blood pressure raises your risk for strokes, heart attacks, heart failure, kidney damage, eye disease and pre-mature death.

Lowering blood pressure

There are two main ways to lower blood pressure – adopting healthy life style habits and taking medication, if needed.

Some lifestyle changes you can make:

  • Achieve a healthy weight
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet, like the DASH diet
  • If you smoke, quit
  • Eat less salt
  • Reduce stress
  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit how much alcohol you drink

The DASH diet

The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is low in fat and sodium, and high in fiber, calcium, potassium and magnesium. It can help lower your blood pressure by up to 14 points. The plan allows for 2,000 calories and 2,300 mg of sodium per day, so here are some guidelines to stay on the plan:

  • 4–5 servings of vegetables
  • 4–5 servings of fruit
  • 2–3 servings of low-fat or fat-free milk and milk products
  • 6–8 servings of grains
  • 6 or fewer servings of lean meats, poultry and fish
  • 2–3 servings of fats and oils
  • 4–5 servings of nuts, seeds and legumes per week
  • 5 or fewer servings a week of sweets and added sugar

Limit salt and foods that are high in trans-fat and cholesterol.

Nutritional supplements for heart health

  • Multivitamin and mineral supplements: A daily multi vitamin and mineral supplement can help you get the right amount of vitamins and minerals each day, if you can’t get them through your diet.
  • Co-Q10 supplements: These are sometimes recommended for people who are taking statin medicines, for their heart health.
  • Niacin: This may help some people maintain cholesterol levels that are already within a normal range. If you take cholesterol-lowering drugs, you should not take niacin, unless recommended by your healthcare provider, as it may cause flushing or hot flashes.
  • Fish oil capsules: Supportive, but not conclusive, research shows that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil capsules may reduce your risk of heart disease.
  • Plant stanols and sterols: When combined with a heart healthy eating plan, plant sterols and stanols may reduce your risk for heart disease. They are found in many fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils, and in some margarines, orange juice, energy bars, yogurts and supplements.

Discuss any of these options with your healthcare provider before adding them to your heart health regimen.



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Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD, CDE, CDN—an award-winning RD, certified diabetes educator, and past national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is the author of The African American Guide to Living Well With Diabetes, which received the Favorably Reviewed designation from the American Association of Diabetes Educators, and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes.

Dr. Lori Shemek, PhD, CNC, CLC, the best-selling author of “Fire-Up Your Fat Burn! and leading health and weight loss expert, is also known as “The Inflammation Terminator.” She has made it her mission to educate the public on the toxic effects of certain foods and lifestyle choices and how they create inflammation in the body. She is a leading authority on inflammation and its role in weight loss, preventing disease and optimizing health.

Rebecca Bitzer – MS, RD/LD, CEDRD is an award-winning Registered Dietitian, writer, speaker, blogger, and REBEL Dietitian business owner. Rebecca and her team of six Registered Dietitians have counseled thousands of clients struggling with diabetes for over twenty-five years. They work closely with each other along with internists, endocrinologists, therapists, and families.

Maureen Sullivan – RN, CDE has worked for many years as a Registered Nurse, most of them in emergency and trauma services. She is a Certified Emergency Nurse, Certified Diabetes Educator, and the former manager of a hospital stroke program. Maureen’s wealth of knowledge, passion for nursing and education, and ability to engage people makes her an excellent teacher and a captivating lecturer. Recently, Maureen has been concentrating on writing, speaking and teaching, as well as working on her award-winning weekly podcast, “The Health and Humor Show.”

Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN is a nutrition communications specialist, registered dietitian in private practice, social media consultant, speaker, spokesperson and corporate consultant. She is currently the owner of Nutrition Starring YOU, LLC and www.NutritionStarringYOU.com. Lauren strongly believes that we should “Think Healthy, not Skinny”, and “EveryBODY is unique, your diet should be too”. Lauren was co-host of the Family Food Experts Kitchen radio show, available for listening on iHeart Radio and iTunes. Also known as one of the “NutritionBabes”, Lauren co-founded NutritionBabes.com, a popular Health and Wellness website in 2009. NutritionBabes.com was voted one of Healthline’s Top 100 Health Blogs in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Mark Heyman, PhD, CDE is a clinical health psychologist and the director of the Center for Diabetes and Mental Health (CDMH). In addition to treating patients with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, Dr. Heyman provides training for health care providers on how to identify and address the emotional and behavioral aspects of diabetes in their patients. He also works with pharmaceutical and medical device companies to help them understand these issues and incorporate this information into their sales, marketing, and patient education materials. He is particularly interested in empirically supported behavioral interventions that promote behavior change and improve physical and mental health in people with diabetes.

Katie Ferraro, MPH, RD, CDE is a nationally-recognized registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and author with an expertise in nutrition communications and curriculum development. She is the co-author of “Diet Therapy in Advanced Practice Nursing” (McGraw Hill, 2014) and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Nutrition at the University of California San Francisco and University of San Diego’s graduate schools of nursing.

Dr. Beverly S. Adler, PhD, CDE (aka “Dr. Bev”) is a clinical psychologist and certified diabetes educator, author and speaker. She specializes treating the emotional issues of people with diabetes. In her private practice, she provides individual, family and/or group therapy utilizing a cognitive behavior therapy orientation, combined with a spiritual approach. Her goal is to empower her patients to manage their diabetes.

Dr. Bev is the author of two self-help diabetes books. She has written numerous articles which are published in print and online – always focused on diabetes from the emotional perspective. She also speaks to audiences of people living with diabetes, as well as, to audiences of healthcare professionals and diabetes educators. Dr. Bev, herself, has been living successfully with type 1 diabetes for 40+ years.

In August 2016, Dr. Bev was honored to receive the “CDE Entrepreneur of the Year” Award from her Metropolitan NY Association of Diabetes Educators.

Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND is an internationally recognized nutrition and diabetes expert with more than two decades experience. Through writing, speaking and one-on-one coaching, Jill empowers people to grab control of their health. She has worked as both a nutrition counselor and a diabetes educator in the hospital and research settings, and now in private practice in Newport News, VA. Jill is known for her practical approach and caring attitude. Her no-nonsense strategies to eating well include foods that both taste good and are good for you.

Marlene Koch (pronounced ‘cook’) is a nationally recognized nutritionist, popular TV personality and New York Times bestselling author. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from UCLA with a Bachelor’s degree in Nutritional Science. She is a registered dietitian and one of a select group of dietitians to hold an advanced certificate in Child and Adolescent Weight Management from the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.

Marlene has taught professional chefs from the American Culinary Federation the principles of healthy cooking and eating. She has been adjunct Nutrition professor and cooking instructor for Columbus State College and the Columbus State Culinary Academy, and she is a nationally recognized expert in weight loss, diabetes, child and adolescent nutrition, and sugar substitutes.

Marlene has sold over one million cookbooks, and is a regular guest on QVC.

Barbara Ruhs – MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and owner of Neighborhood Nutrition LLC, a consulting firm focused on providing solutions to help food companies and supermarkets improve consumer health & wellness. She’s a former supermarket dietitian and has run a successful business for 17 years. A leader in the field of nutrition, her mission is to help people by impacting the way food is produced, marketed and sold. She’s a strong advocate for supermarket dietitians and believes the retail food industry has the greatest potential to impact public health.

Cheryl Orlansky has over 25 years of experience in health promotion and chronic disease prevention and management. Her first career as a registered dental hygienist led her towards a path of wellness and nutrition! Her expertise is in diabetes, weight management and cardiovascular disease for individuals and groups. She works in a large private practice including endocrinology, internal medicine, rheumatology, neurology and sleep medicine. She is an award winning dietitian with current leadership positions in state and local dietetics organizations.

She has been interviewed and quoted in media outlets for WebMD, Atlanta Sports and Fitness, Georgia Public Broadcasting, and the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. She has partnered with V-103 Radio to lead supermarket tours as part of a community outreach during National Nutrition Month.

Cheryl helps her clients reach balance through lifestyle choices: cooking and eating, activity and purpose in life.

Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and classically-trained chef. With a passion for helping people (including her father) with diabetes, she’s author of The With or Without Meat Cookbook: The Flexible Approach to Flavorful Diabetes Cooking and the award-winning The All‐Natural Diabetes Cookbook, both published by the American Diabetes Association. Jackie is also author of 1,000 Low-Calorie Recipes and Big Green Cookbook. Her next book, The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook—2nd Edition, was published in 2015.

Nutritionist Rania Batayneh, MPH is the author of the best-selling book, The One One One Diet. She holds a master’s degree in public health nutrition from the University of Michigan School of Public Health and is also a Wellcoaches Certified Health and Wellness Coach endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

OmnichannelHealth Media, publisher of DiabetesDigest.com, does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See additional information.