When it comes to prioritizing your health, what's the first body part that springs to mind? Many would say our brain needs the most care because it controls everything else (and they'd be right), while others would highlight the importance of our largest organ, the liver (crucial for detoxification), or that it's our bones that need extra love (women and men alike begin to lose bone density in their mid-30s). While each of these deserves equal attention on the priority scale, there's one we've all been neglecting: our heart.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year—that's one in every four deaths. This is the most surprising thing about heart health that physician, nutritionist, author, speaker, and award-winning patient educator Steven Masley, MD, wished more people knew. "Most people don't realize that heart disease is the number one cause of death for women," he told MyDomaine. "And six times more women die of heart disease than breast cancer. But we can prevent 90% of heart disease with the lifestyle changes outlined in this program."
Here, Masley is referring to a recent partnership with the Health Coach Institute and a new program that empowers health coaches to combat heart disease by supporting their clients' well-being through habit change. "It's surprising that some simple nutrients people are taking for their health may truly cause heart disease over time," he said. We tapped his expertise to discover how our diets can improve heart health and prevent heart disease, and we found out the surprisingly common supplements you never knew were harming this vital organ.
MYDOMAINE: Diet is the first thing we should consider when supplementing our bodies. What are your top five foods for enhancing and improving our hearts?
STEVEN MASLEY: My top five are fiber, healthy fats, lean protein, beneficial beverages, and fantastic flavors. Let me explain why.
Fiber is important because it satisfies hunger, is nutrient loaded, detoxifies, promotes weight loss, improves blood sugar and cholesterol profiles, and slows aging. Your goal is to reach at least 30 and up to 50 grams of fiber daily. Aim to get your fiber from whole foods. Examples include fruits, beans, nuts, vegetables, and whole grains.
Healthy fat is important because it helps to improve circulation, brain function, and artery function. Studies have shown that eating more nuts and eating more extra-virgin olive oil decreases cardiovascular disease without gaining weight. Recommended healthy fats include extra-virgin olive oil, walnut oil, almond oil, avocado oil, nuts, avocado, 70%+ dark chocolate, and certain types of seafood like wild-caught salmon.
Lean protein helps build muscle, increases calorie burn to lose fat, helps you feel satisfied, and helps reduce hunger. Examples include wild-caught salmon, sardines, shrimp, scallops, lobster, and trout; organic, free-range chicken and turkey; organic free-range select sirloin or tenderloin cuts.
Beneficial beverages help hydrate and provide nutrients and antioxidants. One to two cups of coffee is okay, but tea is better for you. Alcohol has benefits if you only limit it to one serving per day, but you can indulge in a daily cup of cocoa. Examples include water; green, black or herbal tea; black coffee; and red wine. Try to remember whenever you get your beverages from bottles opt for glass over plastic. Preferably opt for unsweetened options.
Fabulous flavors are considered seasonings such as herbs and spices. These are important because they help provide healthy nutrients that are good for the brain, digestion, heart, and liver. They also increase metabolism, slow aging, and decrease inflammation. Try to grow your own herbs in pots if you can; look for basil, parsley, mint, rosemary, thyme, and oregano. Garlic, onions, ginger, turmeric, and leeks are also great. If you use dried herbs and spices, look for Italian herbs, paprika, cayenne, cinnamon, and nutmeg, to name a few.
MD: When should we start eating these foods to avoid heart problems? Why?
SM: The sooner the better so that your body can begin to work with these high-quality building blocks. Ideally, you have been following a healthy lifestyle, which includes the foods listed elsewhere in this interview.
MD: Can you explain good fat and why is it's so important for your heart?
SM: Smart fats have proven clinical benefits. They improve how you age, and prevent and reverse many diseases. Great examples of smart fats are avocado (1/4 to 1/2 per day), nut oils, and olive oil (one tablespoon), dark chocolate (one ounce), cold water seafood (three-and-a-half ounces), eggs from cage-free, organic-fed chickens (two), and most nuts (one ounce = a handful).
MD: What healthy snacks should we keep on hand to improve our heart health?
SM: Look for food rich in fiber like an apple, berries (blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries), carrots, avocado, or pears. Snacks rich in magnesium include almonds and Brazil nuts.
MD: What other ways can we improve heart health that aren't diet or exercise related?
SM: One of the best ways to improve heart health is through stress management and reduction. Make a point of focusing on self-care, whether that be getting a massage, having a relaxing bath, or going for a leisurely walk. Meditation, mindfulness and gentle yoga practices are also highly recommended.
MD: How much should we be doing every day for our heart health?
SM: Most people procrastinate to make health changes. The problem with heart disease is that too often the very first sign of heart disease is death, a heart attack, or a stroke, and then it’s too late. My best advice is DON'T WAIT. Start making changes now that will help you feel and look better, improve your brain performance, enhance your sexual function, and prevent heart disease. Start today to ensure you enjoy fantastic health for decades to come.
Top 6 Surprisingly Common Nutrients in a Multivitamin That Can Cause Heart Disease and Hurt Your Health
"Most people need between 800 to 1200 miligrams of calcium per day, and many people heed this advice. The problem is calcium blocks magnesium absorption, and if you are like most Americans, magnesium-deficient, then taking a calcium supplement alone makes this problem worse. Low magnesium levels can cause cardiac arrhythmias, sudden death, migraines, constipation, insomnia, and muscle cramps. So if you take a calcium supplement, either confirm your diet has 400 miligrams of magnesium daily, or take it with magnesium, ideally a three to one or two to one calcium-magnesium ratio."
"Alpha-tocopherol is one of eight forms of vitamin E, yet it represents only 20% of the vitamin E normally found in food. Delta and gamma tocopherols are other forms of vitamin E and are more beneficial than alpha forms, and alpha-tocopherol blocks some delta and gamma activity. Even worse, alpha-tocopherol has been shown to decrease the effectiveness of healthy HDL cholesterol, and in some people increases the growth of arterial plaque growth. Unfortunately, alpha-tocopherol is the cheapest form of vitamin E, so it is the most commonly sold. To correct this problem, simply buy a multivitamin with mixed tocopherols, not one with just alpha-tocopherol."
"If you have heavy menses or you are a rapidly growing child, then you may need to take an iron supplement to avoid anemia. However, most people who take iron are not anemic and don't need the extra iron, which will actually make them age faster. Iron is an oxidant and in excess is harmful to your heart (taking too much iron will rust you on the inside). If you are anemic and need iron, then please avoid forms like iron sulfate that are harsh on your intestinal system; instead, look for protein-bound forms, like iron glycinate or an iron chelate."
"There are nearly 300 pigments in fruits and vegetables, and one of the primary groups of chemical compounds with color are called carotenoids. One of those carotenoids is beta-carotene, which has a strong red-orange color. The problem with using beta-carotene alone in a supplement is that there are many valuable pigments in our diet, such as lycopene and lutein, and adding one in excess can block the absorption of many others. Because it is cheaper than using a mixed carotenoid form, many manufacturers use it in their formulations. Another concern with beta-carotene is that smokers convert it into something that causes cancer. The goal is to take a supplement that provides mixed carotenoids, not just beta-carotene itself."
"The problem is that most fish sold in the USA is cheap, often loaded with rancid fats (that is why is tastes bad if you taste the oil being sold), and I believe that eating rancid fish oil increases inflammation and can even cause cancer. I recommend you either take fish oil directly from a glass bottle, or, if taking capsules, always poke a needle in one capsule from the bottle and taste it to confirm the oil is fresh. It won’t taste like lemonade, it is fish oil, but it should taste pleasant; it shouldn’t taste foul or rancid.
As an example, several studies that have looked at blood levels of fish oil in humans have shown higher levels of EPA and DHA are associated with increased risk with prostate cancer, yet the only study that looked at blood levels and looked at the source of fish oil showed that high-quality fish oil decreases prostate cancer risk, it doesn't increase it. The bottom line is that eating fresh, small-mouth (low mercury) wild fish and taking fish oil are good for our health, but don’t be fooled into taking cheap fish oil that might do you harm.
High-quality fish oil has several health benefits that include:
- Less risk for heart attack and stroke, especially in people with known cardiovascular disease
- Improved brain performance and speed, and likely a lower risk for Alzheimer's disease.
- Decreased inflammation and improvement in arthritis symptoms (it sure makes my joints feel better!).
- Decreased risk for auto-immune diseases, such as skin conditions and inflammatory bowel disease."
"Oxides won't kill you, but they do upset your stomach and can cause a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms. When you see magnesium oxide on an ingredient, this means they are using a cheap ingredient. Better would be magnesium citrate. And much better is magnesium that is bound to protein, such as magnesium glycinate, magnesium malate, or a magnesium chelate."
For more information on how to maintain a healthy heart, shop Masley's book below.
How do you take care of your most important organ? What's your biggest health concern? Up next, how to get rid of period cramps.
General disclaimer: You should consult your physician before making the suggested changes to your diet and your exercise regimen, and before taking any recommended supplements or products.