Women's health

5 steps to a healthy heart

Feb. 17, 2012 at 2:36 PM ET

By Latesha Campbell and Tatiana Quiroga

Women’s Health

1. Eat more plants and fish.

Stock up on colorful foods that are rich in heart-healthy antioxidants, such as pomegranates, blueberries, tomatoes, and spinach. Antioxidants decrease your risk of heart disease because of the anti-inflammatory effect they have on the blood vessels, says Marisa Moore, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. They help get rid of the plaque buildup in the arteries, keeping vessels clear.

Many fruits and vegetables, such as oranges, bananas, and mushrooms, are also high in potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure. Moore recommends eating five to nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables, making sure you have three different vegetables and two kinds of fruit. "A variety gives you a healthy balance of the nutrients you need," Moore says.

Also learn to navigate your grocery's seafood section, and make it a habit to include fatty fish like salmon, sardines, or rainbow trout in your diet. Moore says adding a four-ounce serving of fish like these to your menu twice a week is a great way to get your omega-3 fatty acids. These help reduce the risk of heart disease by decreasing your blood pressure and triglycerides. 

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2. Cut the fat.

A diet that's low in fat is like a warrior's shield against heart disease. Decrease your saturated fat intake to no more than 7 percent of your daily calories. You'll find it in butter, meat, and whole-fat dairy products, says Nieca Goldberg, M.D., director of the Women's Heart Center at New York University's Langone Medical Center.

Try to eliminate trans fats from your diet too. They're the worst offenders, not only raising levels of bad cholesterol but also lowering levels of good cholesterol. Only 1 percent of your daily diet should consist of trans fats. Foods such as margarine, oils, fried foods, and pastries are prime spots for this heart foe, so beware. 

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3. Know your risk.

It's important to see your physician to check for high cholesterol, elevated blood sugar, and signs of diabetes.

Blood pressure should be less than 120/80 for women, Goldberg says. Plus, being aware of your specific risk factors for cardiovascular disease can help guide your diet and fitness goals.

Another way to assess your risk is to know your family's history. Your risk is increased if women in your family under 65, or men under 50, have had heart disease, Goldberg says. It rises 17 percent if your father has had heart disease, and skyrockets to 43 percent if your mother was afflicted. And even if you follow a healthy diet and exercise regimen, your risk could rise to as much as 82 percent if both of your parents had heart disease.

Knowing your numbers and risks allows you to be proactive about your health, says Michelle A. Albert, M.D., associate physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "It also means you're going to take some action against that risk. That action may be drug therapy or changing your behavior," she says. 

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4. Move your feet.

Not up for an intense workout? Even walking for 30 minutes a day can help strengthen your heart.

Exercise can increase your high-density lipoprotein, commonly known as "good" cholesterol, and decrease your low-density lipoprotein, also known as "bad" cholesterol. These two kinds of cholesterol, combined with triglycerides, form your total cholesterol count, which should be less than 200.

LDL should be less than 100, and HDL should be above 50 for women, says American Heart Association spokesperson Anjanette Ferris, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center. The more you exercise, the better your chances of reducing your cholesterol. 

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5. Stop smoking.

It's time to give up cigarettes. For good. Besides the fact that they cause cancer, are expensive, and just plain smell bad, they could very well kill you. Smokers are two to four times more likely to develop coronary heart disease. Since that's the leading cause of death in the United States, why keep up the bad habit? Smoking tobacco narrows arteries, raises blood pressure, and thickens blood, making it more likely to clot—the perfect recipe for a heart attack.

And if you don't care enough about your own health to stop, think of how you are affecting the health of those around you. Exposure to secondhand smoke can cause heart disease even in nonsmokers. 

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