Proper diet helps reduce heart disease

February 22, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

February is Heart Health Month, so do something good for your heart before the month is over. Take time to examine eating and lifestyle patterns that affect the overall health of your heart.

Heart disease is any disease that affects the heart or blood vessels. Though much effort has been made to make people aware of causes and prevention, heart disease is still the leading cause of death in America for both men and women. In fact, heart disease kills someone every 33 seconds in the U.S. - that is about 2,600 people a day.

Many factors affect a person's risk of heart disease. One of these factors is cholesterol level. People with a high cholesterol level are at greater risk for heart disease than people with a lower cholesterol level. Cholesterol level can be controlled in several ways. One way is to make healthy food choices. Research shows that meals high in fiber and low in fat might help reduce our risk of heart disease.


Healthful food habits can help you reduce three of the major risk factors for heart attack - high cholesterol, high blood pressure and excess body weight. Positive food habits also help to reduce your risk of stroke, because heart disease and high blood pressure increase the risk of having of a stroke.

Consider these recommendations from the American Heart Association's Eating Plan for Healthy Americans and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPyramid: Steps to a Healthier You:

· Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Choose five or more servings per day. Fruits and vegetables are naturally high in fiber and low in fat. MyPyramid ( recommends eating two and a half cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit each day. Plan to eat at least two servings of fruits and/or vegetables at each meal.

· Eat a variety of grain products, including whole grains. Choose six or more servings per day. MyPyramid recommends consuming 6 ounces of grains each day, with half your grains being whole-grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice and pastas.

· Include fat-free and low-fat milk products, fish, legumes (beans), skinless poultry and lean meats. MyPyramid recommends three cups of low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt and other milk products daily. MyPyramid also recommends 5.5 ounces of protein daily, with your choices being low-fat meats or poultry. An additional recommendation from MyPyramid is to vary your protein routine by choosing more fish, beans, peas, nuts and seeds. Some foods from this group, such as salmon, tuna and walnuts are high in omega-3 fats that help to increase the good (HDL) cholesterol level.

· Choose fats and oils with 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving, such as liquid or tub margarines, canola oil and olive oil. Salad dressing and spreads such as butter and cream cheese are high in fat; avoid or use sparingly. MyPyramid recommends making most of your fat sources from fish, nuts and vegetable oils. Limit solid fats like butter, stick margarine, shortening and lard, as well as foods that contain these.

· Balance the number of calories you eat with the number you use each day. For an estimate of the number of calories your body uses each day, multiply your weight in pounds by 15 calories. (This represents the average number of calories used in one day if you are moderately active. If you get very little exercise, multiply your weight by 13 calories instead of 15.)

· Maintain a level of physical activity that keeps you fit and matches the number of calories that you eat. Walk or do other activities for at least 30 minutes on most days. To lose weight, do enough activity to use up more calories than you eat every day. MyPyramid: Steps to a Healthier You recommends 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days of the week - about 60 minutes of daily physical activity might be necessary to prevent weight gain. For sustaining weight loss, at least 60 to 90 minutes a day of physical activity might be required.

· Limit your intake of foods high in calories or low in nutrition, including foods such as soft drinks and candies that have a lot of sugar. Select snacks carefully. Choose foods and beverages low in added sugars. Added sugars contribute calories with few, if any, nutrients. Low-fat cheese or yogurt, canned or fresh fruit, raw vegetables or whole-grain crackers are good snack choices.

· Limit foods high in saturated fat, trans fat and/or cholesterol, such as full-fat milk products, fatty meats, tropical oils, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and egg yolks. Instead, choose foods low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol from the first four guidelines. Check the Nutrition Facts label to keep saturated fats, trans fats and sodium low. For more information about trans fat, visit and click on oils.

· Eat less than 2,400 milligrams of salt (sodium) per day.

·Have no more than one alcoholic drink per day if you are a woman and no more than two if you are a man.

The AHA guidelines focus specifically on improving heart health and therefore provide specific guidelines on the amounts of some foods that should be eaten and the amount of physical activity. For more information about the AHA dietary guidelines or to obtain a copy of the complete AHA Eating Plan for Healthy Americans, visit the AHA's Web site at

MyPyramid represents the most current scientific information about diet and physical activity. For more information about MyPyramid and related guidelines, visit

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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