Nutrition Column – Five Steps to a Healthier Heart

According to the National Vital Statistics Report, six of the fifteen leading causes of death in the United States are directly associated with diet. At the top of the list is heart disease, which accounts for approximately 40 percent of all deaths annually in the United States. While this number may sound daunting, the truth is many deaths from heart disease are preventable.  

February is American Heart Month and a great time to evaluate eating and lifestyle patterns that may influence your heart health. Making simple changes to your diet, staying active and having a few basic medical tests routinely done can greatly reduce the risk for heart disease in most people. Get started down the path toward a healthier heart by following these five steps.

1. Have your cholesterol checked. High total cholesterol (200mg/dL or above) and high LDL cholesterol (130mg/dL or above) levels are a major risk factor for heart disease. When total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels become elevated, deposits of cholesterol called plaque build up in artery walls, resulting in atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. As the plaque continues to accumulate, the arteries begin to narrow which may slow or block the flow of blood to the heart. Lowering blood cholesterol through diet, exercise and, if necessary, through prescription medications will help lower heart disease risk.

2. Monitor your blood pressure regularly. Another major risk factor for heart disease is high blood pressure, or hypertension. A person’s blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of the arteries. Having high blood pressure means there is consistently greater pressure on the blood-vessel walls. The higher the pressure, the harder the heart has to work and thus the greater the risk of a heart attack. Taking steps to lower your blood pressure in turn can lower the risk for heart disease.

3. Achieve or maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese, especially if the excess fat is carried in the abdominal region, puts additional strain on the heart, contributes to high blood pressure and raises cholesterol levels. For those who are overweight, strive to improve your weight because even moderate weight loss can significantly reduce heart disease risk. For people currently at a healthy weight, maintain it by making wise food choices and living an active lifestyle.

4. Establish healthy eating habits.  The American Heart Association recommends Americans choose an overall balanced diet from all major food groups emphasizing fruits, vegetables and whole grains. At least five servings of fruits and vegetables and six servings of grain products, especially whole grains, are recommended daily. In addition, the Heart Association recommends including fat-free and low-fat dairy products, fish, legumes, skinless poultry and lean meats in the diet. Because they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, at least two servings of fish per week are recommended. Food types to limit include foods high in sugar and calories, foods high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, and foods high in sodium. This puts high-sugar beverages, candy, donuts, pastries, high-fat meats and most savory snacks on the list of foods for limited intake.

5. Live an active lifestyle. Engaging in 30 minutes or more of physical activity most days of the week can help trim away extra pounds, increase HDL cholesterol ("good" cholesterol) levels, and help lower blood pressure, which can reduce the risk for heart disease.

For more information on promoting heart health, additional risk factors for heart disease or warning signs of a heart attack visit the American Heart Association’s Web site at

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension