The Beat Goes On: Heart Health and Nutrition

Although exercise is one of the best ways to improve heart health, even athletes are not immune from heart disease. You have undoubtedly heard reports of marathon runners who die of heart attacks and football players who have strokes. Women, like men, need to pay attention to heart disease; it is the number one killer of women, higher than all cancers combined.

To address the topic of heart disease among active people, the Sports and Cardiovascular Nutrition practice group of the American Dietetic Association ( featured heart health as the theme of their annual convention (April 2008, Boston). The following bits of information from that conference might inspire you eat wisely to keep your heart beating for a long and healthful lifetime.

? First of all, when it comes to heart disease, you should know your cholesterol numbers. Get your blood tested for total, LDL and HDL cholesterol. Having a low LDL is the primary goal for reducing heart disease. If your LDL is >160 mg/dL, the sooner you lower it to <130, the better off you'll be.

? Foods that actively lower LDL include oats, barley, soy, beans, almonds/nuts and plant sterols/stanols (added to margarines such as Benecol). Although each single food might have only a small cholesterol-lowering effect—for example, consuming three glasses of soy milk a day might lower LDL by only five percent, combining several of these foods becomes very powerful. For example, in subjects with high blood cholesterol, a diet rich in oats, nuts, soy, and phytosterol-enriched margarine reduced LDL by almost 30 percent in four weeks. That's as powerful as cholesterol-lowering drugs!

More: Eat to Lower Cholesterol

With minimal effort, you can consume LDL-lowering foods on a daily basis and achieve long term benefits. Plus, by filling up on oats, nuts and beans, you are not chowing on bacon, cookies and steak—and gain the added benefit of displacing those sources of artery-clogging saturated fats.

? Oatmeal is easy to add into a sports diet. If cooking oats is not your style, simply eat them raw—mixed in with cold cereal. For example, Wheaties + raw oats + slivered almonds + (soy) milk + fruit creates an easy heart-healthy breakfast. Microwaving a packet of instant oatmeal (with a spoonful of peanut butter) creates a tasty, effective pre-exercise and/or afternoon snack.

? Inflammation, caused by cholesterol-filled plaques in blood vessels, plays a role in heart disease. Foods that reduce inflammation include salmon and other oily fish, walnuts, fiber-rich whole grains, fruits, vegetables and even dark chocolate. Among fruits and veggies, the Big Six are apricots, bananas, oranges, tomatoes, broccoli and spinach. Eat them often!

More: A Natural Anti-Inflammatory Remedy

? The Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, fish and seafood is also protective and offers a seven percent reduction in mortality from heart disease. Consider using more olive oil for salad dressings, saut?ing vegetables, and as a dip for bread (instead of butter)—but watch the calories!

More: The Benefits of Olive Oil

? Eating eight ounces of fish per week, especially cold water fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring) rich in omega-3 fats, can reduce the risk of death from heart disease by 36 percent (and from other diseases by 17 percent). Eating fish delays death within the hour after a heart attack, providing time to get the victim to the hospital for treatment. Plan one lunch with tuna (with low-fat mayo) and one dinner with salmon each week.

? Humans cannot make omega-3s; that's why we need to eat them. A healthy person can get the recommended intake from fish. Just eight ounces salmon (the richest source) provides a week's worth of omega-3s. (Cardiac patients need more, necessitating fish oil pills.) Salmon is also a rich source of vitamin D. Three ounces canned pink salmon provides the daily requirement for D, which protects against high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and many other health issues. (For a recipe with canned salmon, try Simple Salmon Patties. See Recipes for a Healthy Heart on page two.)

? What's good for the heart is good for the mind (and the rest of the body, for that matter, because all bodily systems are interconnected). Eating fish twice a week is associated with a 13 percent slower decline in mental performance.

More: 5 Simple Fish Recipes

? Some athletes believe farmed fish have higher levels of PCBs and other toxins. According to Dr. Charles Santerre of Purdue the risk is tiny compared to the strong heart-health benefits. PCBs are stored in the fat. To reduce intake of PCBs, don't eat the fish skin nor the fat drippings.

? The risk of heart disease increases with age, particularly as women enter menopause. Menopause increases fat deposition in the trunk/waist area, more so than on the legs and arms. This abdominal fat is linked with heart disease.

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