The Science of Heart Health

We are an information seeking society. Indeed, by the end of most days we can report on any number of important (and often unimportant) stories. However, it turns out that for all we do know, there are some very important details we don’t know.

According the Cleveland Clinic, Americans don’t know their personal (and critical) numbers for reducing risk of cardiovascular disease. Yes, we know that we should reduce our risk, and as a dietitian, I am happy that many of you try to be “healthy,” but the problem is that what you don’t know is if those choices are having the right results.

In their recent survey, the Cleveland Clinic found that participants couldn’t report on their Body Mass Index (BMI), waist circumference or other factors that are aligned with a greater risk of heart disease. Furthermore, the survey highlighted the confusion that many are experiencing when it comes to understanding cholesterol, blood pressure, fasting blood sugar and other measurements they receive from their doctors. The bottom line is that while 68% of Americans are concerned about dying from heart disease, too few understand their risk factors.

So we’ve got some work to do. But once we know our numbers, what do we do to reduce our risk? Here’s what the science tells us when it comes to…

Salt is only one of several factors to pay attention to for a healthier heart.


According to experts at the American Heart Association (AHA), the message on heart disease and exercise is two-fold. To begin, the AHA recommends 150 minutes/week of moderate exercise, 75 minutes/week of vigorous exercise, or a combination. For individuals with chronic elevated blood pressure (hypertension), 40 minutes of aerobic exercise 3-4 times/week is suggested. It is interesting to note that in addition to exercise, experts also recommend becoming generally more active and simply sitting less. In fact, recent research suggests that even individuals who engage in regular exercise are at increased risk of heart disease if they otherwise always sit at a desk, on a couch, or in a car commuting. Be sure to get up and move throughout the day to reduce risk.


If you thought that sugar was only related to diabetes, think again. In a health headline twist that could rival any newsworthy scandal, the sugar industry made news this past fall for allegedly manipulating health headlines (dating back to the 1950s) to position saturated fat and cholesterol as the only culprits in heart disease. Indeed sugar intake, and added sugar in particular, is associated with obesity, poor fat metabolism and other risk factors aligned with heart disease.

Saturated Fat & Cholesterol

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans shifted the focus on dietary cholesterol, which has helped Americans enjoy nutrient rich foods like eggs and shrimp.  It’s important to note, that while coconut oil, whole milk dairy and other foods high in saturated fat have gained popularity, the advice has not changed. Saturated fat remains an unhealthy fat for your heart that’s associated with a rise in LDL (harmful) cholesterol. It’s widely recommended that we limit our saturated fat intake to 7% or less of our total daily calories.


Salt is sneaky and makes its way through our food industry in our well-loved foods like pizza, bread, cold cuts, bottled dressings and more, which offer more sodium than many realize. The result is that most Americans are exceeding the daily recommended intake of sodium before they even pick up the salt shaker. A diet high in sodium is aligned with elevated blood pressure and risk of heart disease. The current sodium recommendation recommends less than 2,300mg sodium/day and 1,500mg sodium/day for those at risk for elevated blood pressure, which is many of us.


You may be surprised to learn that there is a connection between healthy sleep patterns and heart health. According to the National Sleep Foundation, men with severe sleep apnea are 58% more likely to develop congestive heart failure. We also know that poor sleep can have a negative impact on diet, increase stress and make weight loss more difficult, which contributes to risk of heart disease. The good news? There is a link between exercise and better sleep so get moving and you are likely to sleep well too!