A cardiologist has shared five habits that she avoids to try to maintain a healthy heart.
Dr. Nicole Harkin, a cardiologist and founder of Whole Heart Cardiology, a preventive cardiology practice in California, told Insider that it’s never too early to adopt lifestyle habits that can improve heart health, “and frankly overall health.”
Harkin, 41, started to examine the data behind choosing a healthy lifestyle for heart disease prevention when she was in her early 30s, during a cardiology fellowship.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most ethnic and racial groups in the US. About 20% of adults who died in 2020 from coronary artery disease, the most common form of heart disease in the US, were adults aged 65 and under, it says.
While factors like a person’s genetics can’t be changed, 80% of all heart attacks can be prevented with lifestyle choices, according to the World Health Organization.
Here are five things that Harkin never does so she can keep her heart healthy.
Harkin said that she initially started eating a vegetarian diet for animal rights reasons.
However, she later found that research showed a “pretty robust” link between red meat — specifically processed red meat — and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
“Personally, I don’t consume any animal products, but for others I would highlight avoiding red meat and processed red meat,” she said.
Harkin said in a recent TikTok video that regularly eating hot dogs, hamburgers, and deli meat “trashes” the arteries.
Instead, Harkin said that people should eat more fiber — found in fruits, vegetables, beans, and wholegrains.
“It helps regulate glucose, it helps lower cholesterol, and then it typically comes in the form of plant foods which have all these other amazing vitamins and minerals in them,” she said.
“I really work with my patients on trying to get around 40 grams a day as that’s kind of the level that we see really reductions in glucose and cholesterol and things like that,” she said.
Harkin said that she doesn’t smoke cigarettes or vape.
“Almost all the heart attacks I’ve seen in young women are in women who smoke,” she said.
According to the American Heart Association the “use of inhaled nicotine delivery products, which includes traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes and vaping, is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., including about a third of all deaths from heart disease.”
Harkin, a mom of three kids, said that she “cherishes” sleep and aims for at least seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, if possible. “Studies have really shown that not getting that type of sleep is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease,” she said.
Harkin added that obstructive sleep apnea, which is a sleep disorder when part or all of the upper airway gets blocked while you sleep, is strongly associated with heart problems like an irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure.
“If you snore or have non-refreshing sleep, morning headaches, or any other signs of sleep apnea, getting screened for it is a really important step for heart health,” she said.
Harkin said that, even though she doesn’t appear to have risk factors that cause heart disease like high blood pressure, she’d never dismiss chest pain if she experienced it.
“A shocking amount of heart attacks happen in people who would be considered low risk by traditional screening criteria,” she said, adding: “People are always so much sicker when they roll into the hospital having had chest pain for hours.”
Harkin said that physical inactivity was one of the “biggest risk factors” for heart disease, so she’d never skip exercise, even when she’s busy or tired.
“Research really supports the idea that a 10-minute walk is better than nothing and is helpful for your heart health. So I wouldn’t let time be the constraint and the reason for not doing any sort of movement or exercise,” she said.
“If I could prescribe one thing for everyone, it would be exercise,” she added.
The AHA recommends that people get two and a half hours of “moderate” physical activity per week, such as dancing or gardening, or 75 minutes of “vigorous” exercise, like jumping rope running, or swimming.
Harkin approaches decisions around her lifestyle from an overall body health perspective rather than just focusing on weight loss, for example by thinking: “What am I doing to nourish my body today?”
“A diet consisting solely of bacon and cigarettes might make you thin, but it’s certainly not good for your whole body or cardiovascular health,” she said.