Weight loss may not always be part of the equation when you’re managing a heart condition, but there’s no denying that excess weight can put your cardiovascular health at risk. So, how do you know if you need to manage your weight with a heart condition? And, if you do, how do you approach weight loss with a heart condition?
The Relationship Between Weight and Heart Health
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), keeping your weight in a range that’s considered healthy for you can improve your cardiovascular well-being in a number of ways. For one thing, healthy weight management can help your body circulate blood more efficiently, which helps to lower your risk of not just heart disease, but also diabetes, certain cancers, gallstones, osteoarthritis, breathing problems, and sleep apnea. Plus, the AHA notes that, when you feel good about your weight, you tend to have more energy and motivation to make other positive changes in your health, whether it’s getting more sleep or giving up a risky habit like smoking.
Still, the question of whether weight management should factor into your heart health self-care will depend on the type of heart condition you live with, as well as any other chronic conditions you might be managing.
For example, if you live with type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, that means you have a higher risk of heart attack or stroke, and losing weight will likely help to manage both your blood sugar and blood pressure, explains One Drop coach, Hanna, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN) and certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES). (Learn more about how weight loss can benefit blood pressure.)
All that said, “it’s important to know what’s healthy for you as an individual” when it comes to weight, says One Drop coach, Lorraine Chu, RDN. “Talk to your doctor and see what they recommend after a physical assessment and lab work,” she explains. (And remember that there are other ways to categorize your weight besides body mass index, or BMI.)
If you’re advised to lose weight, your doctor may refer you to a registered dietitian (RD) who can take your chronic condition into consideration as they create an individualized meal plan for you, says One Drop coach, Lisa Graham, a CDCES and registered nurse (RN). “You might also be referred to physical therapy or to an exercise physiologist who can create a customized exercise plan to meet your health needs,” she adds. (One Drop health coaches—many of whom are registered dietitians or certified personal trainers—can also be an excellent source of education and support as you figure out ways to manage your weight. Learn more about what our health coaches can offer you that a weight loss coach can’t.)
Strategies for Managing Weight and Heart Health
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to taking care of your weight, your heart, or both at the same time. The key is to follow guidelines from your doctor, organizations like the AHA, and your One Drop coach, to figure out which healthy habits do and don’t work for you—whether it’s medication, surgery, diet, exercise, or even all of the above.
Heart-Healthy Eating Habits
You’ve probably seen tons of “diets” touting weight loss and heart health benefits. But, if you live with a heart condition, the AHA doesn’t really recommend a specific “diet”; rather, it’s all about getting a variety of heart-healthy foods into your everyday meals and snacks, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein (such as fish), legumes, nuts, low-fat or non-fat dairy, lean meats, poultry, vegetable oils (such as olive oil), and whole, unprocessed foods. As for foods to limit, the AHA recommends minimizing your intake of added sugars, red meat, processed grains, salt, sodium, saturated fats, and full-fat dairy.
“Of course, this can seem overwhelming for someone who doesn’t normally eat this way,” notes Chu. “I recommend implementing one or two small changes that feel doable until you feel ready and confident to take on more.”
For instance, try adding some veggies to your work lunch every day, such as spinach and cucumbers in your wrap, or reaching for fruit for a snack or an after-dinner dessert, suggests Chu. “Keep in mind that small changes at a time are often more sustainable in the long run—and that’s what we’re looking for!” (In other words, it’s all about mastering the habit loop.)
The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute helped develop a method called the DASH diet (dietary approaches to stop hypertension), which is specifically designed to help treat or prevent high blood pressure. Similar to the AHA’s recommendations, the DASH diet limits foods that are high in sodium, added sugars, and saturated fat, calling instead for more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (found in nuts, avocados, vegetable oils, etc.), and foods that are rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein (nutrients that help control blood pressure—think: avocados, nuts, bananas, leafy greens, legumes, sweet potatoes, reduced-fat yogurt).
Again, though, it’s not necessarily about following the DASH diet—or any diet, for that matter—to a T, but rather, drawing ideas from them and making them work for your lifestyle. Maybe you’ll find that you love the combination of fiber-rich brown rice with the healthy fats in avocado for lunch, or perhaps you love lean proteins like scrambled eggs with whole-grain pita and hummus (which also happen to be another great source of fiber and healthy fats, too).
For more recommendations, check out our beginner’s guide to heart-healthy eating.
For all adults, the AHA recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week, including moderate- to high-intensity resistance or weight training at least twice per week.
What might all of that look like, exactly? Here are some examples from Chu:
- Brisk walking
- Swimming for fun
- Household chores
- Brisk walking, uphill
- Fast cycling
- Swimming laps
- Competitive sports
If the sheer task of getting active feels daunting, Chu recommends starting small. “Set 15 minutes aside during your lunch break for a nice walk, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or park farther away in the parking lot to your destination,” she suggests. “It all adds up!” (Try these five no-equipment exercises for a quick total-body workout.)
Weight Loss Surgery and/or Medication
Not everyone who’s managing their weight with a heart condition will be able to achieve their health goals through lifestyle habits alone—and that’s okay. Weight loss surgery—also known as bariatric or metabolic surgery—can help treat obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and high cholesterol, among other conditions.
There are several different types of bariatric surgery, a common one being the vertical sleeve gastrectomy (VSG). In a VSG, about 80% of the stomach is removed so you can have a “very clear signal that you’re physically full” whenever you eat, which helps you eat in moderation and, in turn, manage both your weight and any related metabolic or cardiac conditions, explains Hanna. “A VSG can also help stabilize blood sugars in people with type 2 diabetes,” she adds.
To be clear, not everyone who’s managing their weight and heart health will opt for a VSG. “Everyone has a different reason to get a VSG,” says Hanna. “The most important thing to consider is if you’re truly ready to make lifestyle changes long-term because, generally, the surgery alone will not keep the weight off.”
The same goes for any medication you may take to manage your weight, notes Hanna. Some medications might help regulate your hunger or fullness cues, while others work by helping your body limit its absorption of fat from the foods you eat.
Either way, “diet and exercise go hand-in-hand with all weight-loss interventions, including bariatric surgeries and medications,” stresses Hanna. “Continuing with diet and physical activity is what I’ve seen to be the difference between short-term and long-term weight loss.”
Ready to start prioritizing your weight and cardiovascular goals? Become a One Drop Premium member and explore our Complete Weight for Heart Health collection, which includes a Withings Body weight and BMI Wi-Fi scale, plus one-on-one coaching to help you create a heart-healthy plan that works for you.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations and program design at One Drop.