Heart Disease Prevention Millennial Style: Plant-Based Diets and Exercise Combinations You Should Start Now to Have a Healthy Heart Long Term

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By: Melissa Schenkman, MPH, MSJ

While your 50th birthday may seem like a long way off, when it comes to our hearts it’s not as far away as you might think.

Studies of heart disease in young people who have unfortunately died of other causes, such as war, have frequently shown the beginning stages of cholesterol build up in their arteries as teenagers.

That’s why it’s important whether you are in your 20s, 30s, or a newly minted 40-year-old to pay attention to your heart because heart disease starts now! (If it has not already.)

“We have an immense opportunity to change the way we eat and live now to prevent heart disease in the future,” said cardiologist and cholesterol specialist, Nicole Harkin, MD. “It’s never too late to adapt to a healthy lifestyle, but it won’t have the same impact as if you create healthy habits now.”

Nicole Harkin, MD, Founder of Whole Heart Cardiology, a practice where she provides patients with personalized plans for heart disease prevention.

A fellow millennial who combined her passions for prevention and cardiology to found her practice Whole Heart Cardiology, Harkin began exploring the power of lifestyle changes to prevent cardiovascular risk as a cardiology fellow at New York University.

At the time, the results from PREDIMED—a massive dietary trial looking at the impact a Mediterranean diet could have on risk of heart disease—were published. It showed a 30% reduction in cardiovascular disease endpoints (conditions, such as heart attack and death from heart disease) for people who ate the Mediterranean diet.

Since then, Harkin has believed in using all the tools in her toolbox—traditional and lifestyle medicine—to optimize her patients’ heart health. She shows us what that means for millennials in terms of diet, exercise, and genetics. 

Reminding us: “Your future 50-year-old self will thank you for establishing these healthy habits now!”

Eating ‘Heartily’ for Your Heart

Getting into the habit of nourishing our bodies with health promoting foods means having a diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds, Harkin says, while keeping our intake of animal products like meat (especially processed meats), dairy, and processed and packaged foods low. 

“It’s not only great for our hearts, but also for our general health!” Harkin emphasizes.  

“While one meal will not dramatically impact your overall health, research has shown that dietary patterns over a decade can dramatically impact one’s risk of heart disease and lifespan.”

Like many fellow millennials, she is a big advocate of plant-based or plant forward diets. In fact, they are her top choice for heart disease prevention. 

She’s a fan because such diets are rich in fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients – all of which are so good for our bodies – and typically low in bad stuff like saturated fat, salt, and sugar.

Adding that, “Plant-based diets are not only a great dietary choice for personal health, but also healthy for our planet (and the animals living on it!)” 

How do we safely engage in plant-based eating without getting nutrient deficiencies though? 

Take Vitamin B12 supplements. Harkin explained that it’s the only supplement you need to take and only if you go entirely plant-based (vegan) – because you can’t get this from plant foods. It’s worth noting though that many omnivores are deficient in B12 as well.

“As with any dietary pattern, you need to be mindful of consuming a variety of foods to be sure you hit all of your targets,” she said.

Modifying Your Risk with Movement

Exercise is the second most powerful way to modify our risk of heart disease. 

Harkin suggests we aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, dividing our time into as short or long intervals as we like. You should do something that you enjoy, such as hiking outside or swimming laps in the pool. 

And when you are really pressed for time, consider other ways to fit movement into your day, like walking meetings, and taking the stairs. 

“Ideally, we should also get one or two sessions of resistance training as well such as weight lifting or Pilates – increasingly we are realizing the importance of specific, targeted resistance training on cardiometabolic risk factors such as body composition and glucose regulation,” Harkin explained.

Why? Well, because there is actually data that shows that even engaging in a little bit of exercise supports heart health, (and is better than nothing), she tells us.

On the flip side, for some people there likely is such a thing as too much exercise. 

“We continue to see benefits of aerobic exercise on health up to around 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. Beyond that we see diminishing returns and possible signs of harm,” Harkin said. 

The Bottom Line

While genetics are important, lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and reducing your stress can be super important for lowering your heart disease risk! In fact, Harkin shares with us that she saw that one study demonstrated lifestyle factors reduced risk in those with a family history of heart disease by 50%! 

Eating more plants, exercising, and reducing stress not only help prevent chronic disease when practiced regularly, but they also make you feel better, give you more energy, help you sleep better, and all other kinds of immediate health benefits. I can’t tell you how many of my patients make some of these changes to improve their cholesterol or blood pressure and are pleasantly surprised that their bloating is improved and energy is up!

Nicole Harkin, MD

To learn more from Dr. Harkin about why heart health matters for millennials and how you can be proactive, visit YMyHealth’s Heart Health page.

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