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Protecting Your Heart

From the WebMD Archives

By Susan Ince

Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo The Tasty Foods That Are Best For Your Health, And The (Easy) Workout Plan That Really Works

For years, nutrition experts have told us that the only heart-healthy diet was a low-fat, high-carb plan. Now they're eating their words. Last November, the Harvard Nurses' Health Study showed that a low-carb diet can be good for women's hearts—even if it means a higher fat intake. It all depends on the type of fat. What's more, in a head-to-head comparison a few months earlier, Spanish researchers reported that a higher-fat diet in the Mediterranean style cut heart risk factors more than the standard American Heart Association (AHA) low-fat plan. Here's what your eating plan should include:

Lots of fruits and vegetables, beans, and whole grains

All are good sources of minerals and vitamins (especially heart-healthy antioxidants), as well as low in fat and sodium and high in fiber. Getting five servings a day of fruits and vegetables reduces your risk of heart disease by 18.4 percent, and more servings are even better for you, according to a recent analysis of several studies involving more than 200,000 men and women.

Little red meat

Fish, especially oily types (sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon), supply omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower blood pressure and reduce other risk factors for heart disease. If you're worried about mercury, keep in mind that Harvard researchers recently calculated that the heart benefits of fish greatly outweigh any risk. But women of childbearing age should avoid the four types highest in mercury: swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish.

Olive oil

This may be a major reason why the Mediterranean diet beat out the AHA plan. The heart association's diet limits fat, including olive oil. But the latest research shows that olive oil's monounsaturated fat helps lower LDL (bad) cholesterol without reducing the HDL (good) kind; low-fat dieting, on the other hand, can lower HDL. Of course, you still need to limit saturated fats (the kind found in red meat and whole-milk dairy products) and completely avoid trans fats (found in some commercial baked goods and fast-food items).



These are the other major source of fat in the Mediterranean diet. Nuts contain antioxidants and are high in healthy fat. Walnuts, for example, have been shown to reduce dangerous triglycerides and boost heart-protecting HDL; in fact, if you are going to indulge in a high-fat meal, including walnuts can help minimize artery damage. Other nuts to snack on: pecans, pistachios, and hazelnuts, says Michael Miller, M.D., director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center.


Alcohol (in moderation) raises HDL, and the grape skins used to make red wine contain the antioxidant resveratrol, which may help prevent blood clots and keep vessels flexible.

Don't forget that the Mediterranean lifestyle includes plenty of walking and relaxation time. "Stress is an underestimated risk factor," says Dr. Miller.

The New Skinny on Weight

There's no doubt that hauling around too much body fat is hard on the heart. But after years of estimating risk with the body mass index (BMI), a 150-year-old formula that roughly calculates body fat using height and weight, doctors are now being encouraged to look more closely at body shape instead. In a 52-country study, researchers compared the BMI with a number of other measures and found that the best predictor of heart attack risk was an individual's waist-to-hip ratio. Pear-shaped people—those who have small waists in relation to their hips—are at lower risk. People with an apple shape, who have wider waists and more fat around the abdomen, have greater reason to be concerned.

To lose that tummy fat, get moving. Diet alone won't do it, but exercise can, even before you see a difference on the scale. Exercise may also make belly fat less risky. In a recent study at Wake Forest University, women who cut calories lost weight and lowered their body fat; those who dieted and added a moderate or brisk walk several days a week also shrank the size of the fat cells around their bellies by 18 percent.

Even if you're thin, you need to exercise. In fact, for maximum heart protection, you need two kinds of workouts: (1) a moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking, dancing, or biking on level ground, which increases HDL and lowers LDL; and (2) something a little more active, like jogging, aerobic dance, or biking uphill, to boost heart and lung fitness.

How often? You should aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise a day on most days of the week. But researchers say that you need to push yourself only slightly beyond your comfort level, just enough to raise your pulse and speed breathing.


Why That Oil Should Be Virgin

Besides containing healthy monounsaturated fat, unrefined olive oils (both virgin and extra virgin) have the highest levels of antioxidants called polyphenols. In a recent study, European researchers found that virgin olive oil increased HDL (good) cholesterol more than other oils. But note: All oils are 100 percent high-calorie fat (approximately 120 calories per tablespoon). "So use virgin olive oil to replace other fats in your diet," says Maria Isabel Covas, Ph.D., of the Municipal Institute for Medical Research in Barcelona, Spain.

Online Help

For more information on heart health, visit, where you can:

* Find out whether your body shape puts you at greater risk for heart problems

* Locate a CPR course near your home

* Learn about the best heart tests for women

* Get info on the risks of secondhand smoke—and how to fight it in your community

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WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine
Reprinted with permission from Hearst Communications, Inc.