Some people can eat almost anything without ever getting heart disease; others have to be careful. For starters, being overweight is one of the most important predictors of heart disease. There is also a genetic variability in how efficiently people metabolize cholesterol and saturated fat in their diets. No matter what your make-up is, here are the ingredients of a diet that every heart will love:
Skim the fat: If your total cholesterol level is consistently below 150 milligrams per deciliter, or your LDL ("bad") cholesterol is below 95, then either you're not eating much fat and cholesterol or your body is efficient at metabolizing it. Either way, your risk of coronary heart disease is low, so whatever you're doing is probably okay, at least as far as your heart is concerned. If your numbers are above these levels, you might try reducing the fat and cholesterol in your diet. One tablespoon of oil has almost as much fat as a scoop (about 3 ounces) of premium ice cream. So avoid fried foods and most oils, with the exception of flaxseed and fish oils, which contain omega-3 fatty acids.
If the changes you make over a month or two are enough to bring your cholesterol down, great. If not, don't give up: You may need to cut back more to see a result. The ten-percent-fat diet used in Dean Ornish's heart-disease-reversal studies was basically vegetarian, since cholesterol is only found in animal products; 70 to 75 percent of calories came from complex carbohydrates and 15 to 20 percent from protein. It's true that people eating this little fat often get hungry between meals, but the upside is that you can eat as much as you want, as long as you stay within the food choices—vegetables, whole grains (including whole-grain breads and pasta), fruits (no avocado, nuts, olives or coconut), egg whites, 1 cup per day of nonfat milk or yogurt—and limit sugar, alcohol and fat.
Veg out: For everyone, there are many benefits to eating a low-fat, plant-based diet featuring whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, soy and fish: You lower saturated fat and cholesterol while increasing antioxidants and other protective substances that fight heart disease, cancer and even aging. You also lose weight and feel more energized. At the very least you may want to minimize red meat, which is linked to heart disease and various cancers, and try adding soy—it comes in burgers, milk, cheese, edamame (if you haven't heard of the tasty soybean, ask for it the next time you're at a Japanese store or restaurant), and tofu. We also encourage consumption of tea instead of other caffeinated beverages for its antioxidant content.
Your Total Guide to Staying Heart-Healthy
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