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8 Ways to Make Your Diet More Heart-Healthy

Lifestyle changes can make a big difference

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Among the best of the many foods that tout heart-healthy properties are products fortified with plant sterols, which can help lower your "bad" LDL cholesterol levels. Plant sterols are found naturally in some foods - like vegetable oils, almonds, beans, corn, wheat, banana, apples, and tomatoes. A healthy diet should provide a certain amount of plant sterols. You can buy sterol-fortified margarines, orange juice, cereal bars, yogurt, chocolate bars, and more. However, more studies need to be done to evaluate its long-term effects.

Alcohol in moderation - that's one drink a day for women and two for men -- can help increase your HDL "good cholesterol." But beyond these recommended amounts, it can have harmful effects. Researchers agree that people who don't drink should not start. There are many other dietary and lifestyle changes that can give nondrinkers similar heart benefits.

For an easy dietary boost, try enjoying a vegetarian meal a few times a week, suggests researcher Wahida Karmally, RD.

"Plant-based diets offer an abundance of low-calorie, nutrient-dense vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting antioxidants that offer tremendous benefits for your health and your heart," she says.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Diet isn't the only lifestyle change that can help you get heart-healthy. Excess weight puts extra strain on all parts of your body, including your heart.

"Being overweight can increase your risk for heart disease, diabetes, as well as other diseases," says Karmally, RD. "The first line of defense, and one of the best things you can do for your heart, is to get your weight within normal limits."

Your body mass index (BMI) is a good barometer of whether you're overweight or obese, but your waist-to-hip ratio may be better for evaluating your heart-disease risk, according to a recent study published in the journal Lancet. If you carry excess weight in your midsection, the risks are greater than if the extra pounds settle on your hips.

The good news is that losing as little as 5%-10% of your body weight can reduce your risk of heart disease, by lowering your cholesterol levels and blood pressure and improving blood sugar and insulin sensitivity. You don't need to get to your goal weight to improve your health.

The Exercise Equation

Along with a healthy diet, a lifestyle that includes regular physical activity is key to heart health, says Winston Price, MD. Price advises his patients to strap on pedometers and try to incorporate extra steps into their daily routines.

"The combination of a heart-healthy diet -- a Mediterranean-style one that is rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables, and low- or nonfat diary -- and a commitment to exercise can have a huge impact on the development of heart disease," he says.

Regular physical activity not only burns calories and strengthens your cardiovascular system, but can also raise your HDL "good" cholesterol levels. You can get this heart benefit from brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming laps, or other aerobic exercise. Doing the equivalent of 3 miles, four times a week, will provide the greatest benefit.

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