July 20, 2017

Women and Heart Disease… How to reduce your risk

What is heart disease?

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is another term used to describe diseases of the heart and blood vessels. The most common is hardening of the arteries, which is called atherosclerosis.

Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart. Arteries harden when there is a build-up of cholesterol and other fats on the inside of the artery. This fat buildup causes the arteries to get smaller and blood cannot get through the arteries as easily.

Sometimes, blood clots form and block the flow of blood to the heart. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke. CVD is the number one cause of early death among Canadian women.

Estrogen and CVD

Estrogen is a hormone in the body. Before menopause, estrogen helps to protect a woman from CVD. It does this by helping to control cholesterol in the blood.

When a woman goes through menopause her estrogen levels become lower. This is when women are no longer protected and have the same risk of developing CVD as men.

Risk factors for CVD

Here are risk factors that cannot be changed and can put a woman at risk for CVD:

  • Family History: Your risk is higher if a close family member (parent, brother/sister, child) developed CVD before age 55 or if a close female family member (mother, sister or daughter) developed CVD before menopause.
  • Age: Your risk for CVD increases with age.
  • Member of a high risk group: Women of Aboriginal, African or South Asian descent are at higher risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. This increases their risk for CVD.

However, there is good news! There are things that you can do to lower your risk of CVD.

If making big changes seems too overwhelming, focus on taking small steps. When these small steps become habits, try adding a few more healthy changes.

Here are some tips to get you started…one step at a time.


Make healthier food choices

  • Choosing a variety of different foods from each of the four food groups in Canada’s Food Guide will help you get all the nutrients you need to be and stay healthy.
  • Have vegetables and fruit at every meal. Aim for 7-10 servings every day. Include at least 1 dark green and 1 orange vegetable every day.
  • Eat more fibre by choosing whole grains and whole wheat products.
  • Buy lower fat milk and milk alternatives. Look for milk, yogurt and cottage cheese that have 1% or less Milk Fat (% MF) and buy cheese with less than 20% MF.
  • Choose lean meats and skinless poultry.
  • Limit serving sizes of cooked meat, fish and poultry to the size of a deck of cards. Choose meat alternatives like beans, lentils and tofu more often.
  • Include fish in your meals at least twice per week. Fatty fish such as salmon, herring and sardines are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
  • When choosing baked goods, avoid those prepared with shortening and hydrogenated margarine.
  • Avoid foods high in saturated fat and trans fat like lard, shortening or hydrogenated margarine. Use small amounts of non-hydrogenated margarine or vegetable oils instead.
  • Steam, bake or broil your food. Avoid deep-frying and use less salt and fat in your cooking.
  • Snack on vegetables, fruit, low-fat yogurt or reduced-fat cheese. Whole grain snacks such as whole wheat pita, crackers or low fat popcorn are also great choices.
  • In restaurants, look for menu items that have been grilled instead of breaded or deep fried and ask for your meal to be made with little or no salt.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink to no more than two drinks a day up to a maximum of 10 drinks per week. A standard drink is 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of spirits or 12 ounces of regular strength beer.

Be more physically active

  • Be physically active every day to help relieve stress and achieve or maintain a healthy weight. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week.

Stop smoking

  • If you smoke, make a plan to quit or cut down. Try smoking 1 or 2 fewer cigarettes each day to start. Is there something different you could do next time you want a cigarette?
  • If you are older than 35, smoking while you are taking birth control pills increases your risk for CVD. Talk to your doctor about support for quitting and about different methods of birth control.

Blood pressure and cholesterol

  • Talk to your doctor about managing high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Have your blood pressure checked often and know your cholesterol levels. Eating healthier foods and being more physically active can help you keep them within normal ranges.



  • Managing stress and feeling good about yourself are as important to your health as eating well and being physically active. Deep breathing, walking or talking to a friend are all ways to begin relieving stress. If you think you need more support, talk to your family doctor.

Lowering your risk of developing heart disease is possible. Take one small step at a time to be a healthier you!

For more information

The information presented here does not replace any advice given by a doctor and does not provide all of the necessary information to manage CVD. If you think that you may be at risk for CVD, talk to your family doctor.

Other useful sources of information:

This information was provided by Toronto Public Health. Information provided on the FoodReach website does not replace any advice given by a doctor and does not provide all of the necessary information regarding your health, nutrition and preventing illnesses.