It has tons of other benefits, too—and it's actually a lot of fun.
If your doctor has told you that you need to take proactive steps to lower your blood pressure or improve your cardiovascular health, knowing where to start can feel overwhelming. It isn’t easy to break habits that have been in place for years that are so automatic that you often do them without even thinking about it.
The encouraging news is that 90 percent of heart disease is preventable through diet and lifestyle habits. Cardiologist Dr. Kaustubh Dabhadkar, MD, MPH, MBA, FACC, who specializes in preventive cardiology, says the key to making changes that will be long-lasting is making them gradually and deliberately. This, he says, will be more effective than trying to change the entire way you eat and live all at once.
According to cardiologist Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, who is also a professor of nutrition at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and professor of medicine at Tufts School of Medicine, there is one change in particular that can make a huge difference when it comes to heart health and it’s the one he recommends people focus on first: cook more.
How Cooking Your Own Food Can Improve Heart Health
The reason why Dr. Mozaffarian says cooking can be so impactful on heart health is that it minimizes the amount of overly processed foods someone would otherwise be eating. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of the sodium that Americans consume comes from overly processed food or meals that are eaten out. This is key because a diet high in sodium is directly linked to high blood pressure and poor cardiovascular health.
When you cook your own foods, you can control all of the ingredients that are used, not just salt but also refined carbs, sugar and saturated fat—all of which are also linked to a greater risk of heart disease. “A diet that is high in calories, especially saturated fats, trans fats and refined carbohydrates, increases bad fat levels in the body and insulin levels,” Dr. Dabhadkar says. “A combination of these increases cholesterol deposition in the arteries leading to the hardening of the arteries and plaque formation in the arteries.”
In Dr. Dabhadkar’s opinion, the worst foods for heart health are potato chips, ice cream and sugar-sweetened beverages. “All three of these are readily available in most homes and almost at all restaurants. In addition, we often mindlessly consume them habitually,” he says. When cooking meals at home, focus on foods that are good sources of fiber and unsaturated fats, and are low-glycemic.
Again, Dr. Dabhadkar emphasizes that small, gradual changes are the way to go when it comes to bettering heart health. If you aren’t used to cooking, start with just making one more meal a week for yourself than you normally would. Another way to make gradual changes, he says, is to cut out one nutrient-void food that you normally eat a week, replacing it with something that supports heart health instead. For example, if you’re used to having chips with your lunch every day, replace them with a handful of nuts, which are still crunchy but much more nutrient-rich.
Other Changes That Support Heart Health
If 2023 is the year you really want to focus on heart health, Dr. Mozaffarian recommends telling your friends and family about your goal. Even better, he says to find other people who support it. Maybe that means joining a Facebook group where people share their favorite heart-healthy recipes. Or it could be telling a friend about your goal of walking more and making a commitment to have a 30-minute walk-and-chat phone call a few times a week. You could also challenge a friend with a similar heart health goal to a weekly cooking challenge, where you take turns picking one heart-healthy food a week to cook with and text each other photos of your cooking creations.
Dr. Dabhadkar says that another heart-healthy tip when it comes to eating is to be mindful while you eat instead of eating while watching TV or being at your computer. Not only will you enjoy your food more because you’ll focus on the flavors, but you’re more likely to avoid overeating.
He also says that getting enough sleep, managing stress, getting regular exercise, and maintaining social connections are all important for heart health. Scientific studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation are risk factors for heart disease. Finding ways to connect with others will help mitigate this risk—especially if it’s combined with movement.
You have the power to improve your heart health, which is pretty darn encouraging. Making small gradual changes will have a considerable impact. Just take it one meal at a time.