How to Overcome Your Genetic Risk for Heart Disease

My friend Bill Baker lost his father from a second heart attack at age 67. His mother, brother, uncles and cousins all have high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. So when Bill's blood pressure started rising five years ago at age 60, he decided he was going to fall far from the family tree -- in a good way. By eating more vegetables and less fatty meats and sugary foods, as well as increasing his daily exercise, Bill dropped 65 pounds in 12 months. As a result, his blood pressure dropped to the envious level of the conditioned, healthy college athlete he was over 30 years ago.

[See: The Facts on Heart Disease.]

Bill's story illustrates exactly what a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine uncovered: That a healthy lifestyle can dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease -- even if your family's health history isn't stellar.

In the study, researchers looked at over 50,000 adults at genetic risk for developing heart disease, as well as four specific lifestyle factors: whether they smoked, were obese, exercised weekly and ate a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, fish and dairy products, and few refined grains, processed meats, red meat, sugary beverages, trans fats and sodium. If a person met any three of the four healthy criteria, the researchers categorized him or her as having a favorable lifestyle. If they met one or less of the healthy factors, their lifestyle was considered unfavorable.

The researchers found that even folks at higher risk for developing heart disease due to genetics were still able to lower their risk by at least 45 percent if they also practiced favorable lifestyle habits. In other words, if your family dealt you a bad hand of genetic cards, but you don't smoke, aren't obese and eat a healthy diet, you may still be able to beat the family odds of succumbing to heart disease.

[See: The 12 Best Heart-Healthy Diets.]

Don't know where to start to improve your diet? Try adding these five foods to your weekly eats:

1. Cocoa

Cocoa is a rich source of flavanols, a phytochemical that improves the functioning of blood vessels, and thus, your cardiovascular system. Flavanols seem to increase the production of nitric oxide, a compound in your body that helps the muscles in the walls of your arteries relax. Just be sure to avoid cocoa that has undergone Dutch processing, which not only destroys cocoa's natural acidity, but also the flavanols.

-- Mix some cocoa powder into your morning java for a mocha-like coffee that will wake you up and potentially relax your arteries.

-- Treat yourself to a nonfat Greek yogurt with a teaspoon of cocoa powder as an afternoon snack.

2. Whole Oats

Research suggests that beta-glucan, a viscous soluble fiber found in oats, can help lower total and LDL cholesterol levels. When it comes to choosing which type of oats to buy, keep in mind that how they're processed matters. According to Johnson McRorie, co-author of a recent article on the subject, the more processed the oats, the less potent the beta-glucan and its ability to lower your blood cholesterol levels. So, while old-fashioned oats take a few minutes longer to cook than instant oatmeal in the morning, they're probably better for your heart.

-- Start your morning off with a bowl of oatmeal. Add a dash of cinnamon, which will add natural sweetness to your breakfast.

-- When making meatballs or breaded chicken, swap out some of the breadcrumbs for oats.

3. Beans

Fiber-rich beans can help curb your appetite by helping you feel fuller sooner. Because obesity increases your risk of heart disease, trimming calories is good for both your heart and waist. Protein-rich beans can also replace higher-calorie, less heart-healthy cheeses and meats in entrees.

-- Replace a 1/2 cup of cheddar cheese with a 1/2 cup of beans to shave off about 100 calories from your lunchtime salad or wrap.

-- Replace a 1/2 pound of ground beef with 1 cup of kidney beans to cut 190 calories from a chili recipe.

4. Nuts

Research suggests that nuts can help lower blood cholesterol levels and that eating 1.5 ounces daily of almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios or walnuts, along with a heart-healthy diet, may reduce your risk of heart disease. (An ounce of nuts is about 25 almonds, nine whole walnuts or 48 pistachios.)

-- Sprinkle chopped nuts over your morning oatmeal or yogurt.

-- When hunger strikes between meals, reach for a small handful of nuts.

5. Fish

While fish is low in heart-unhealthy saturated fat, it has another healthy quality that makes it a winner for your heart: The omega-3 fatty acids in fish can help slow the plaque buildup in your arteries that contribute to heart disease, as well as reduce your risk of dying from heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish (about 8 ounces total), especially fatty fish rich in these healthy omega-3s, weekly. Salmon, sardines and canned light tuna are all good sources of omega-3 fats.

[See: 13 Best Fish: High in Omega-3s -- and Environmentally Friendly.]

-- When you eat out, order an 8-ounce grilled salmon. Eat only half and take the remainder home for dinner the next day. Presto: You just met your weekly quota of two fish meals.

-- Add canned light tuna or salmon to your lunchtime salad.

Joan Salge Blake is a Clinical Associate Professor at Boston University and the author of "Nutrition & You," 3rd Edition, Pearson/Benjamin Cummings (2014), "Nutrition & You: Core Concepts to Good Health," Pearson/Benjamin Cummings (2010), and "Eat Right The E.A.S.Y. Way," Prentice Hall Press (1991). She is the co-author of "Nutrition: From Science to You," Pearson/Benjamin Cummings (2016). Joan has conducted more than 1,000 media interviews and has been quoted in or written for various media outlets, such as the New York Times, Food Network, Newsweek, Washington Post, Forbes, Prevention, WebMD, Consumer Reports, Boston Globe, Newsday, Time, The Atlanta Journal Constitution Readers Digest, and Cosmopolitan, People, Parade, Cooking Light, Parents, Shape, Self, More, Sports Illustrated, Woman's Day, More, All You and O magazines. She has appeared on CBS, The Early Show, CNN, CBS News Boston, NBC News, Boston, NPR and Fox TV, Boston. In 2012, Joan was named by Good Housekeeping Magazine as the expert to follow on Twitter for healthy eating. She is currently working towards her doctorate. Follow her on Twitter at: @JoanSalgeBlake.

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