Here’s what you should know about diet and exercise from your late teens through your 30s to keep your heart happy and healthy. A clue: step away from those salty and sugary snacks!

I’m still a teenager and you want me to think about – what? Heart disease?

The answer is a definite “yes”!

To avoid heart disease in your future, the best medicine you can take now – when you are in your late teens and into your 30s -- is to adopt healthy diet and lifestyle habits.

The solution is not as hard as you might think.

  1. Follow a balanced diet that’s low in sugar, fat, sodium and refined grains.
  2. Find a physical activity that you enjoy on a regular basis.
  3. Do not smoke tobacco and avoid secondhand smoke.

When you are 18-35, you tend to think that heart disease affects people later in life and you are correct. But what you do now, will catch up with you later. So make sure to protect your heart now. You and your heart will be happy you did later.

Late Teens Through 20s

Young people in transition from adolescence to adulthood are very vulnerable to bad food habits.

It is tempting to skip breakfast, order tasty salt-heavy takeout food or crunch potato chips while binge-watching your favorite TV show. When you are 18–25, you may be leaving home to live on your own for the first time, whether for college, to room with a friend or get married. This is a time when many of you are not settled financially and grabbing fast food is easy and cheap.

Heart-healthy nutritious meals can keep your grocery bill low if you include items such as brown rice, whole-wheat multigrain pasta, 100% whole wheat bread, low fat Greek yogurt, old fashioned oats, frozen veggies and canned tuna fish.

Your 20s are a great time to start a regular exercise routine. There are many healthy benefits, including lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol, which help keep your cardiovascular system in great condition. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which is a stress-reducer. (Stress is a risk factor for heart disease.) Regular physical activity should include moderate or vigorous aerobic exercise, in addition to muscle-strengthening activities.

Schedule regular doctor visits because it is good to monitor your blood pressure, waist circumference, heart rate and cholesterol. Knowing your baseline data is important.

Balanced Diet in Your 20s and 30s

Even though you may be eating plenty of food, is your body getting the proper nutrients it needs to be healthy? Nutrient-rich foods are lower in calories and provide the vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients your body needs.

The best heart-healthy choices are:

  • Fruits, veggies
  • Whole grains
  • Fat-free, 1% fat and low-fat dairy products
  • Lean meats and poultry without skin, prepared without added saturated and trans fat
  • Fish (at least twice a week)
  • Limiting sugary foods and beverages

It is true that the best way to start your day is to have a healthy breakfast. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends a balanced breakfast of lean protein, whole grains and fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. One example is having oatmeal cooked with low-fat milk, with sliced almonds and berries, low-fat cheese and a slice of whole-wheat toast. Another option is an English muffin with peanut better.

Making dinner at home can be wallet-friendly and healthy. Helpful shortcuts make food preparation less time-consuming, especially if you use the weekend to prepare for your week. For example, cook a batch of soup that offers portions for lunch or dinner during the week. Buy a rotisserie chicken (or bake one yourself) that can be ready for casseroles or to eat by itself with vegetables and a salad.

Keep on hand speedy meal additions such as pre-cut or frozen veggies, low-sodium broth, and herbs and lemons for extra flavoring.

This is the time to say good-bye to some of your favorite “go-to” foods and drinks that have zero nutritional value: sodas, sugary fruit punches, sugary coffee drinks, many fast foods and even processed meats like hot dogs. Better choices are 100% fruit juice or water. Consider commercially baked desserts as an occasional indulgence.

In Your 30s: Eat, Sleep and Stay Heart-Healthy

When you are in your 30s, you may be busy nurturing your family and your career. These responsibilities can be stressful and time-consuming so that healthy eating and exercise are pushed to the back burner.

There are several things you can do in your 30s to maintain heart health. You can make exercise a family affair by biking, hiking or playing sports. A morning at the park playing soccer or chasing a Frisbee is a fun way to spend a few hours.

Eating healthy continues to be a way to prevent heart disease and it is challenging when you have young children who want sugary treats after school or dinner. The American Heart Association recommends reducing sugar and increasing fiber and keeping healthy snack options on hand such as yogurt and fruit. Even a piece of angel food cake can be a tasty alternative.

Now that you are ready to focus on a healthy lifestyle, making better food choices and exercising regularly, getting the right amount of sleep is also important.

Adequate sleep has a direct impact on your physical and mental health. There are some variables, but usually teenagers need about 9 hours of sleep, and adults typically need about 7-8 hours a night.

Know Your Risk Factors

Even if you make the commitment to exercise and eat a healthy diet, you are still not immune to heart disease.

Starting in your mid-to-late 30s, if not sooner:

  • Be aware of major risk factors. A family history of heart disease, or hypertension, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, or diabetes, can increase your probability of having a heart attack.
  • See a cardiologist if you are “at risk.” This checkup can be a lifesaver.
  • Don’t ignore symptoms. If you have shortness of breath or chest pains, go to the hospital immediately.
  • Take recommended medications. If a doctor recommends that you begin a medication, like statins, follow this advice to modify your risk factors.

Say “No” to Your Salt Shaker

The American Heart Association estimates most people consume about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day – more than twice the 1,500 milligrams it recommends. The American Heart Association also urges people of all ages to “Take the Pledge” to reduce the sodium we eat. Visit the sodium breakup pledge website for more info and to take the pledge

By taking this pledge, you not only choose a healthier lifestyle, but you will receive tips from the American Heart Association to help you successfully navigate your sodium reduction journey.

It can be hard to eat healthy levels of sodium because so many of our foods have relatively high levels. Nearly 75% of the sodium in our American diet is found in processed and restaurant foods.

In some people, sodium increases blood pressure because it holds excess fluid in your body, and places an added burden on your heart. Because blood pressure rises with age, eating less sodium now will help curb that rise and reduce your risk of developing conditions such as heart disease.

For most foods, the sodium level that qualifies as “healthy” is 480 milligrams of sodium or less per serving. More than 70% of pizza, pasta and meat dishes -- very popular choices -- are usually above the limit for sodium per serving. Between 50% and 70% of cold cuts, soups and sandwiches are also above the limit.

Bread, a popular and easy “grab and go” food when it comes to a piece of quick toast for breakfast or a sandwich for lunch, isn’t necessarily high in sodium but we tend to eat several portions a day, causing our sodium intake to add up.

Food labels should be our best friends. The American Heart Association recommends we compare food labels of similar foods and choose the one with the lowest amount of sodium. Food labels help us maintain a heart-healthy diet that includes foods that are low in fat, cholesterol and sodium.

Remember: if you are in your late teens through your 30s, you are not too young to take care of your heart. Exercise, eat right, get enough sleep, never smoke tobacco and know your risk factors for heart disease.

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