4 Weeks to a Stronger Heart
Change the Way You Eat
The long-touted low-fat diet is yesterday's news. The latest nutrition research suggests that maintaining your arterial superhighway is not just about avoiding as much saturated fat and processed food as possible but also about fueling your tank with what many experts call "functional foods," those foods rich in nutrients with powerful heart-protecting (and anti-cancer) properties. "Focusing on low fat is overly simplistic," says Christopher Gardner, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the Prevention Research Center at the Stanford University School of Medicine. "When you combine natural high-fiber foods with plant sterols and unsaturated fats, you start to see cholesterol-lowering benefits."
Plant sterols and stanols are potent fatlike compounds that block absorption of unhealthy dietary cholesterol. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends that adults eat a minimum of 2g daily. Wheat germ, soy products, walnuts, almonds, peanuts, cereals, and olive and vegetable oils are good natural sources. To ensure you get enough, try yogurt, cheese, bread, orange juice, margarine, supplements, and dark chocolate enriched with these compounds.
The payoff: Getting 2g of stanols or sterols a day can cut cholesterol up to 15 percent in as little as a month and also lower your blood pressure.
Get the Right Fats
Fats are a major source of energy and help fill you up so you don't overeat. In addition, your body uses fat to produce compounds that help regulate blood pressure and heart rate. A growing body of data suggests that it's the type of fat you eat each day -- rather than your total fat intake -- that has the biggest effect on your cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 7 percent of your total daily calories and trans fats to less than 1 percent. Make sure that your total fat intake is no more than 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories and eat primarily polyunsaturated fats (found in vegetable oils like corn, soy, safflower, cottonseed, and sunflower), monounsaturated fats (found in olive, canola, and peanut oils as well as avocados and most nuts), and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (fatty cold-water fish, such as salmon, herring, and mackerel; also walnuts, flax oil, and flax seeds).
The payoff: In one study, when women replaced 25g of saturated fat with unsaturated fat from vegetable and nut oils, their heart disease risk dropped by 16 percent in just 25 days. And substituting 2 tablespoons of monounsaturated olive oil a day instead of using that much saturated fat can lower your LDL cholesterol.
Fill Up on Fiber
Only one type of fiber helps your heart -- the viscous, or soluble, kind found in foods such as beans, oats, oat bran, barley, citrus fruits, eggplant, and okra. It helps to block absorption of cholesterol in the digestive tract and to regulate blood sugar. Also consider taking a daily dose of psyllium, a soluble plant fiber (Metamucil and Fiberall have it).
The payoff: Consuming 5 to 10g of soluble fiber a day can lower your LDL cholesterol by about 5 percent in as little as four weeks.
Cut the Salt
If you've got pre- or full-blown hypertension, consider trying the low-sodium DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet recommended by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. It's rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products and includes poultry, fish, nuts, and whole grains but only small amounts of red meat, sweets, and sugary drinks.
The payoff: If you are able to find ways to reduce your salt intake to 1,500mg a day (most women consume 3,300), you can lower your systolic blood pressure by as much as 11 mm Hg and your diastolic by 4 mm Hg in only 30 days.