Vegetarian Diet Can Boost Cardiovascular Health

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Last year, when former President Bill Clinton gave up meat for his daughter’s very vegan wedding, it was an act of love that came straight from the heart.

In the long run, his decision to change his eating habits and shed 20 pounds for Chelsea just might save his heart, too.

The American Heart Association recommends eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats and poultry. But lately, plant-based diets have gotten a big boost from Clinton and others who believe it reduces the risk of heart disease.

Last month, the new USDA dietary guidelines for the first time highlighted the benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet, including a reduction in obesity and heart disease.

It’s never too early to take steps to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, which affects men and women. In fact, it kills twice as many women as all forms of cancer combined.

“We all should be worried about heart disease regardless of our age,” said Susan Levin, nutrition education director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “Most people, by the time they are 18, have plaque in their arteries.”

A vegan diet is more mainstream than ever, making it easier for novices to stick with it.

“It’s not a hippie folk dancer thing to do,” she said. “It’s just people who want take control of their health.”

Going vegan is just one way to love your heart, but it’s not the only option. If you’re not ready to give up meat, eggs and cheese quite yet, there are plenty of other ways to protect your heart.

Here, 10 ways to get a start. And some don’t even require a change in lifestyle.

1. Don’t go vegan overnight,

but give it a try

Take baby steps. Make Mondays meat-free. Instead of eating hot dogs, try tofu dogs. It’s not a health food, but it’s healthier than the alternative. And learn to love beans of all kinds.

“Fresh, dried, canned, frozen, however you can get a bean in your body, do it.” Levin said. “There are so many beans and so many things do with them.”

2. Drink more OJ

Two cups of 100 percent orange juice may be just what the cardiologist ordered.

A new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that drinking two cups a day for one month significantly improved health.

Men who participated in the study had a decrease in their diastolic blood pressure. The higher the diastolic blood pressure, the greater the risk for heart attacks and strokes.

In the study, the men’s blood vessels widened, leading to a decrease in blood pressure and a reduction in the heart’s workload.

3. Get your heart rate up

To improve cardiovascular health, get your heart rate up to 70-85 percent of its maximal rate for at least 30 minutes a day, three days a week. To determine your maximal heart rate, subtract your age from 220.

4. Spice it up

Cinnamon, garlic and basil are just a few heart disease-fighting staples in most kitchens.

A 2003 study found that just half a teaspoon of cinnamon daily lowered cholesterol, blood glucose and triglyceride levels. Another perk: Just one teaspoon provides 1 gram of fiber. Add it to your coffee, oatmeal or hot chocolate for a delicious treat.

Regular consumption of garlic can also decrease cholesterol and triglyceride levels by 10 percent, according to researchers at Brigham Young University.

And basil increases blood circulation to the heart.

5. Take two

Taking two baby aspirin may protect your heart more than taking a single aspirin with only a slight increase in the risk of bleeding or other side effects, according to the authors of Prevent, Halt and Reverse Heart Disease.

Aspirin therapy can lessen the risk of clots forming and blocking narrowed coronary arteries. It can also ease the severity of new heart problems and can help minimize damage at the onset of a heart attack.

Before popping any pills on a daily basis, you should check with your doctor. Daily aspirin therapy is only recommended for those who have had heart attacks or stroke or have other high-risk factors.

Keeping uncoated aspirin handy just might save your life. One study of more than 17,000 people found a 23 percent reduction in the death rate when aspirin was taken within 24 hours of the onset of heart-attack symptoms.

6. Drink your chocolate

Choosing the right chocolate can benefit your heart but you have to be choosy.

Pure chocolate, made from cocoa beans, is rich in flavonol, an antioxidant that may protect arteries from damage, maintain healthy blood flow and fend off heart disease, according to Lona Sandon, a registered dietician at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Dark chocolate and cocoa powder contain the highest levels of flavonol.

But when sugar, milk and butter are added during processing, those benefits go out the door and that candy bar becomes just another fattening treat.

A better option is to drink a cup of hot cocoa — an appealing choice during chilly days.

“Research suggests that drinking a cup of dark hot chocolate can be equated with drinking a glass of wine in protecting the heart,” Sandon said. “It’s what’s added to it that’s not so good for us.”

7. Floss

It is a habit that some people never practice, but flossing not only improves your smile, it can also save your heart.

Inflammation caused by chronic mouth infections irritates the arteries of the heart, making them more susceptible to plaque buildup. Bacteria from the mouth also can enter the bloodstream and attach to plaque in arteries.

8. Meditate

Adults with coronary heart disease who practiced Transcendental Meditation had nearly 50 percent lower rates of heart attacks and strokes compared to those who didn’t in a nine-year study of 201 African-American men and women.

The participants also had significant reductions in blood pressure and stress.

9. Don’t light up — ever

As a nation we’ve finally gotten the message that smoking is bad for our health.

But the growing rate of casual or social smoking among younger adults raises new concerns.

Even an occasional cigarette raises your risk for health disease, stroke and cancer, said Dr. Jarett Berry, a cardiologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center. And people who are exposed to secondhand smoke at work have a higher risk of disease.

10. Check it out

Go to the American Heart Association website and get your personal health score and life plan. The My Life assessment is a sure way to get on a heart-healthy path. While you are there, look for heart-healthy tips, recipes and other ways to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Check out www.heart.org.

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664

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Copyright (c) 2011, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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