You know that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, but are you doing enough to prevent it? Make simple lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of heart disease, beginning with food. A well-rounded diet plays an important role in lowering your low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and keeping you heart attack free.
According to the American Heart Association, two types of cholesterol exist -- good and bad. High-density lipoprotein is your good cholesterol. It prevents LDL, your bad cholesterol, from clogging your arteries and increasing your chances for heart attack and stroke. You can easily remember that HDL is the good cholesterol because it starts with an "h" as in healthy. Your LDL can be measured by a quick blood test at your doctor's office. A high LDL is defined as greater than 160 milligrams per deciliter. As the level of your LDL increases, so does your chance of developing heart disease. Guidelines published by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute are commonly, which health care professionals use in the management of heart disease, recommend that you keep your LDL levels below 100 milligrams per deciliter for optimal health.
A Western diet -- characterized by high intakes of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, refined carbohydrates and low intakes of fiber -- is a strong risk factor for elevated levels of LDL. Consequently, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends that you consume less than 7 percent of your calories from saturated fat, less than 1 percent of calories from trans fat and less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol and that you consume 20 to 30 grams of fiber per day and minimize your intake of refined carbohydrates. Rather than focusing on individual foods, eat a variety of foods from different groups with an emphasis on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, lean proteins and unsaturated fats.
Whole grains are rich in nutrients like iron, magnesium, selenium and B-vitamins. In addition, whole grains contain two types of fiber -- soluble and insoluble. According to the American Heart Association, soluble fiber benefits your body by reducing your production of LDL, and insoluble fiber may slow the progression of cardiovascular disease. The fiber in whole grains can also help you to manage your weight because it increases satiety, keeping your stomach fuller throughout the day so that you have control over what and how much you eat. Common sources of whole grains are brown rice, oats, barley, quinoa and whole-wheat breads and pastas.
Fruits, Vegetables and Legumes
Dietary fiber is also abundant in fruits, vegetables and legumes. Rich sources of soluble fiber are beans, peas, apples, bananas, citrus fruits and carrots. Insoluble fiber is abundant in beans, nuts and vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and potatoes. In many of these plant-based foods, the flesh of the plant contains the soluble fiber and the skin contains the insoluble fiber. You can increase your fiber intake by eating both the skin and flesh of fruits and vegetables. In addition to fiber, plant foods contain key nutrients like vitamins A, C, K and folate and several classes of micronutrients -- plant sterols, flavonoids and sulfur-containing compounds. These micronutrients may prevent the buildup of LDL in your arteries and can be so potent that foods like orange juice and margarine have been fortified with plant sterols.
You may have heard or been advised to avoid red meats because they are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Saturated fat can increase your body's production of cholesterol, and consuming too much dietary cholesterol can directly elevate your LDL levels. But this advice is only partially true. While red meats can have a higher fat content than other sources of protein, lean cuts of red meat are available that naturally contain less fat or have had the fat trimmed off. You can enjoy lean cuts of red meat like beef sirloin or pork tenderloin as part of a healthy diet. Other lean proteins include poultry without the skin, seafood, eggs, soy, nuts, beans, peas and low-fat dairy products. Beans and peas are also part of the vegetable group. You can enjoy foods like eggs and shrimp that are higher in cholesterol if you eat them in moderation because your body uses cholesterol for many functions. Lean proteins provide many nutrients like iron, zinc, magnesium and vitamin B-12. Eating lean proteins can help you power through workouts and control your weight -- two key factors in preventing heart disease.
Limit your total fat intake to 25 to 35 percent of your total daily calories, with the majority of your fat coming from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats have the special ability to reduce your LDL while increasing your HDL. In a comprehensive review of research data published in the December 2012 issue of "Nutrients," investigators from the University of Vienna reported strong evidence for replacing the saturated fats found in animal meats and dairy with monounsaturated fats to reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Good sources of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds and avocado. Polyunsaturated fats can reduce your LDL levels and provide essential fats -- like omega-3s and omega-6s -- that your body cannot make itself. Good sources of polyunsaturated fats are soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout and herring. The American Heart Association encourages you to consume 3 to 4 ounces of fatty fish at least two times a week.
Some people may be prescribed drugs such as statins to help lower their LDL cholesterol. These individuals should still follow a heart-friendly diet because the combination of healthy eating plus cholesterol-lowering medications yields the best results. Additionally, physical activity and exercise are important components of heart health. You can further reduce your risk of heart disease by engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week, according to the American Heart Association guidelines for physical activity. Always check with your physician before starting a new diet or exercise program.
- National Cholesterol Education Program: Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III)
- American Heart Association: About Cholesterol
- MayoClinic: High Cholesterol
- Circulation: Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations Revision 2006
- MayoClinic: Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet
- American Heart Association: Phytochemicals and Cardiovascular Disease
- United States Department of Agriculture ChooseMyPlate: What are Protein Foods?
- Nutrients: Monounsaturated Fatty Acids and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Synopsis of the Evidence Available from Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses
- American Heart Association: Guidelines for Physical Activity
Beth Conlon is a registered dietitian with work published in several peer-reviewed journals. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Saint Joseph's University and a Master of Science in nutrition from Marywood University. Conlon is currently pursuing a doctorate in biomedical sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.