Know Your Numbers for Heart Health

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Happy Heart Month! Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the US, with too many associated comorbidities and high healthcare costs. The good news? You have so much more power to prevent heart disease than you may realize. So let’s focus on prevention.

The most common risk factors for heart disease are:

  • Chronic elevated blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • BMI greater than 25
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Inadequate diet

You also need to consider age and family history—yes, that’s true. But these factors are significantly offset when the previous six are addressed. You can substantially lower your risk through diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle. To better understand your personal heart disease risk, let’s look at the numbers. 

Body Mass Index

Body mass index (BMI) has historically been used to identify individuals at risk for chronic disease based on their height and weight. A BMI greater than 25 indicates that an individual is overweight. Greater than 30 is an indication of obesity, which is a chronic disease highly correlated with heart disease.

BMI has a problematic history (recently, the American Medical Association recognized issues with using BMI as a measurement due to its historical harm, its use for racist exclusion, and because BMI is based primarily on data collected from previous generations of non-Hispanic white populations). BMI is significantly correlated with the amount of fat mass in the general population but loses predictability when applied on the individual level. Relative body shape and composition differences across race/ethnic groups, sexes, genders, and age-span is essential to consider when applying BMI as a measure of adiposity.

LDL Cholesterol

Elevated LDL cholesterol puts you at greater risk for heart attack and stroke. A healthy level of LDL cholesterol is below 100mg/dL. To lower LDL cholesterol, choose Guiding Stars earning foods and reduce your intake of saturated fat. Avoid high-fat meats, whole milk dairy, and coconut as much as possible.

HDL Cholesterol

Unlike LDL cholesterol, high HDL cholesterol is good (above 40mg/dL for men and above 50mg/dL for women). Increasing your activity level is the best way to raise your HDL cholesterol. To prevent it from declining, eat plenty of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from nuts, seeds, fish, and plant-based oils.

Total Cholesterol

This is a measure of your combined HDL and LDL cholesterol. To reduce risk, aim to keep your total cholesterol below 200. Remember, this isn’t the same as dietary cholesterol, so no need to avoid foods with cholesterol like shrimp or eggs.


Elevated triglycerides (above 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), along with elevated LDL cholesterol, increase risk of heart disease. If your triglycerides are high, I strongly recommend moving toward a diet lower in saturated fat and simple carbohydrates. (Excessive carbohydrate intake can elevate triglyceride levels.)

Blood Sugar

Normal fasting blood sugar is between 70 mg/dL and 100 mg/dL. And while elevated blood sugar is not a marker for heart disease, it’s an important measurement to know. There is a common crossover between heart disease and diabetes. Having risk factors or being diagnosed with one of these chronic diseases increases your risk for the other. To protect yourself, eat fewer foods high in added sugar and instead seek a balanced diet rich in whole grains.

When it comes to lowering your risk of heart disease, having a partner by your side is essential. Luckily, Guiding Stars is here to support your health goals.