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Nutrition Smarts

Power Foods for a Healthier Heart

Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States. Fortunately, a healthy lifestyle and heart health go hand-in-hand. You can lower your risk of heart disease by eating right, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight.

Foods to Fill Your Plate

The foods you eat directly impact your heart health. Every year, scientists learn more about the strong relationship between food and health.

The best thing you can do? Pile your plate with fruits and vegetables. They have more vitamins, minerals and health-enhancing compounds like antioxidants than any other food group. Nutrition and heart health expert Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton of Pennsylvania State University says, "We are at the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying all of these bioactive compounds and how they work."

The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Uncle Sam's prescription for healthy eating that is put together by a panel of the nation's top scientists, recommends eating two cups of fruit and two-and-a-half cups of vegetables each day. The potassium in these foods also can help control blood pressure.

Whole grains are another winner. They are low in calories and fat and a great source of complex carbohydrates, the primary fuel for our bodies. Research shows this powerful food can lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Some examples of whole grains are whole wheat, barley, brown rice, oats and corn (including popcorn). You should eat at least three one- ounce servings of whole grain food each day. An ounce is about the same as a slice of bread, a cup of dry cereal or a half a cup of cooked rice or pasta.

Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are all rich in fiber. Studies have shown that fiber lowers cholesterol. It also makes you feel full, which can help in controlling your weight. You should aim to eat 25 to 38 grams of fiber each day, depending on your age and your sex.

Last but not least, health experts recommend eating at least two servings of baked or grilled fish each week because it's high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Some fish to consider are salmon, herring, flounder, and halibut.

Foods to Watch

Keep tabs on your fat intake. Saturated fat is the main food culprit for high cholesterol. The higher your cholesterol, the greater your risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack. (Check out cholesterol 101 and diet, exercise and cholesterol to learn more.) Saturated fats are mostly found in marbled meats like steak, poultry with skin and dairy products like butter, cheese and ice cream.

Try to limit your saturated fat intake to below 10 percent of calories and replace it with unsaturated fats found in nuts, olives, avocados, and canola and olive oils. These “good” fats increase the amount of good cholesterol in your blood while keeping your total cholesterol low.

Studies show a clear relationship between trans fats and heart disease, high cholesterol and weight gain. The latest dietary guidelines advise keeping trans fat intake as low as possible.

Be Fit

Losing excess weight is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of heart disease. Extra weight puts more strain on your heart. It can raise your blood pressure and contribute to high cholesterol, two conditions that can predispose you to heart disease.

If you eat more calories than you burn up for the day, the extra calories get stored in your body as fat, no matter what you ate – fat, carbohydrates or protein. Learn what normal portion sizes look like and find other simple strategies to help you avoid portion distortion. Keeping a food diary is a great way to keep track of calories, and so is reading the Nutrition Facts Panel on packaged foods and beverages.

Changing your eating habits can also help you win the battle of the bulge. For example, the empty calories in certain beverages and snack foods can really add up. Satisfy your snack attacks with low-calorie, nutritious fruit instead of chips and other nibbles and drink iced tea or water in place of soda.

The latest dietary guidelines recommend 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week to promote health and well- being. (Moderate means walking briskly, mowing the lawn, dancing or other activities done at a pace where you feel some exertion but can still keep up a conversation comfortably.) If you don’t have 30 minutes to spare, exercise in 10- minute bouts throughout the day.


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