Whenever I do my “Heart-Smart Women” public presentations, I bring along a unique prop. To help me demonstrate to my audiences what a woman’s heart looks like, I pull out a red bell pepper. Yes. A pepper.
When I shop for my prop at my local grocery store, I look for just the right one: a nice healthy red colour, slightly pointy at the bottom, about the size of my clenched fist, and I weigh it at the produce department scale looking for one that weighs about 250 grams.
But am I wrong about those comparisons to the heart? .
First, pointing out the intricacies of a common food can be a fun way to describe our most important organ. But I learned just recently, for example, that what I believed to be a pretty accurate visual aid may not be representing the human heart. Herein, some fascinating factoids about both hearts and peppers:
I learned, for example, that your heart isn’t really as red as a red pepper at all.
The blood that it pumps is red, but your heart itself is darker and browner than the blood. And according to cardiac surgeon Dr. Christopher Magovern, it turns out that the surface of your heart has abundant deposits of fat (no matter your body weight), which make the surface of your heart look more yellow than red.
I also learned that we know how much a heart generally weighs because of autopsy reports – but only reports from those who have died of non-cardiac causes (e.g. weighing healthy hearts that have not been affected by any form of advanced heart disease).
The weight of an adult heart varies from 110-420 grams (approximately 4 to 14 ounces, for my American readers). But that’s such a broad difference that it makes you wonder if some pathologists had a thumb on the scale during the autopsy. . .
The University of Guelph’s Dr. Glen Pyle is my go-to resource whenever I’m looking for a Professor of Molecular Cardiology. Sure enough, he told me this about weighing hearts:
“These hearts are from women without heart disease, but as you know, there could be some sub-clinical issues that push the heart towards the higher end. More fit women may have larger hearts, but my guess would be the biggest reason for the wide range is the range of body weight.
“We do know that, man or woman, a larger body weight tends to mean a larger heart.“
Anatomy textbooks typically tell us that the human heart is the size of your fist. But in an interesting study published in the journal Cardiovascular Pathology, researchers in Switzerland have suggested that this idea that a normal heart is as big as a clenched fist is incorrect.(1)
The only cases Swiss researchers found in which hearts and fists were the same size, in fact, were in women diagnosed with cardiomegaly (an enlarged heart condition). In fact, heart volume and hand volume may differ significantly in the same person.
Meanwhile, your heart is a relatively small, hollow, muscular organ which is in charge of pumping blood throughout your whole body. ♥ My red bell pepper visual aid, by comparison, is also hollow and muscular.
The heart has four main chambers within its hollow self: the left and right atrium, and the left and right ventricle. ♥ A bell pepper has 3-4 chambers (called locules) within its hollow self. And by the way, there’s no truth to the gardening rumour that a pepper with four bumpy lobes on the bottom between the locules is a sweeter tasting, seedier female (compared to a “male” pepper’s three-lobed versions). Factoid: it is the flower, not the fruit that are the sexual organs in plants (and – another fun factoid! – peppers are actually fruits if you’re a botanist); there’s no particular gender associated with bell peppers.
The heart has a fibrous sac called the pericardium surrounding the entire organ. This skin-like pericardium is made of two thin layers with a small amount of fluid between them that helps to reduce friction between the two layers as they rub against each other during each heartbeat. The normal pericardium is shiny and smooth. ♥ A bell pepper’s skin is also shiny and smooth. But did you know that the skin of a bell pepper is not easy to digest – especially if it’s a green pepper? This is why some chefs recommend roasting them, either in the oven or with a blowtorch. You can also peel them raw using a peeler. This is good to know, although I must admit I have never in my life peeled or blowtorched a green pepper before eating it.
The human heart is located under the rib cage, between the lungs and in approximately the middle of the chest, tipped slightly left of the sternum (the breast bone). Unlike what Americans believe when placing their hands upon their hearts while singing their anthem, they are actually patting the left lung. ♥ Bell peppers are located in the produce department at a grocery store or farmer’s market, or if you’re very fortunate, in your own backyard garden patch.:-)
Other fun factoids about hearts:
♥ Modesty prompted the invention of the stethoscope. Before it existed, doctors had to press an ear directly to each patient’s bare chest.
♥ In under a minute, your heart can pump blood to every cell in your body.
♥ Every cell gets blood from the heart, except for your corneas.
♥ Your heart begins beating four weeks after conception, and it doesn’t stop beating until you die.
♥ Over the course of an average day, about 100,000 heartbeats shuttle 2,000 gallons of oxygen-rich blood many times through about 60,000 miles of branching blood vessels.
♥ And finally, the pig: before cardiologists can diagnose or treat humans with heart disease, research scientists first need to study how these procedures work on lab animals. It turns out that pigs are the closest animals to humans when it comes to learning about our cardiovascular systems: “The swine commonly used for heart research have a heart size-to-body weight ratio that’s identical to that of humans.”(2)
Resources for this article included University of Guelph Professor of Molecular Cardiology Dr. Glen Pyle; cardiac surgeon Dr. Christopher Magovern; Mayo Clinic; the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Oldways; and the following academic sources:
G. Ampanozi et al, “Comparing fist size to heart size is not a viable technique to assess cardiomegaly”. Cardiovascular Pathology, Volume 36, September–October 2018, Pages 1-5.
E. Migliati, “Large animal models for cardiac cell therapy”. Stem Cell and Gene Therapy for Cardiovascular Disease, Academic Press, 2016.
Q: Do you have anything to add about peppers, pigs or hearts here today?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about heart factoids, both fun and serious, in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).