Two of the major risk factors for heart attack are high blood cholesterol and obesity, but an American Heart Association survey found that 70 percent of women don't even know their cholesterol level.
The body needs cholesterol to function normally, but too much cholesterol can contribute to narrowing and blockage of the coronary arteries, causing heart disease.
Obesity raises blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels and lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the "good" cholesterol, which is linked to lower heart disease and stroke risk. Obesity also raises blood pressure levels and can induce diabetes, which increases the danger of heart attack.
The AHA recommends eating a balanced diet emphasizing fruits, vegetables, cereal and grain products, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, legumes, nuts, fish, poultry and lean meats to help maintain healthy body weight and cholesterol levels.
Advice on servings
In October 2000, the AHA released the "AHA Eating Plan for Healthy Americans," based on dietary guidelines to help reduce high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and excess body weight.
These guidelines advise eating five or more servings a day of fruits and vegetables and at least six servings of grain products, including whole grains. They also recommend a limit of 6 ounces per day of lean meat, poultry or seafood and a limit of two to four servings of fat-free and low-fat milk products. They suggest dry beans and lentils as a good meat substitute.
Limit foods high in calories or low in nutrition, such as soft drinks and candy, and foods high in saturated fat, trans fat or cholesterol, such as full-fat milk, fatty meat and egg yolks, the AHA advises.
Saturated fats and trans fats are the main dietary factors in raising blood cholesterol. The main sources of these fats in the typical American diet are foods from animals and some plants, according to the AHA.
Trans fats are used in commercial baked goods and for cooking in most restaurants and fast-food chains. They also occur naturally in meat and dairy products. The words hydrogenated fat or hydrogenated vegetable oil in the ingredient list show that a product has trans fat, the AHA says.
A 1999 AHA study showed that individuals who undergo heart surgery are more likely to survive longer and stay healthy if they have high levels of HDL, the "good" cholesterol. HDL levels can be increased through diet, exercise and weight loss.
A good way to increase HDL cholesterol is to eliminate saturated fats and trans fats from the diet and substitute monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats instead.
Research has shown that polyunsaturated fats tend to help the body get rid of newly formed cholesterol, and monounsaturated fats may also help reduce blood cholesterol as long as the diet is very low in saturated fat.
According to the AHA, both types of unsaturated fats may help lower blood cholesterol levels when used in place of saturated fats. But be moderate in eating all types of fat, because fats contain more than twice the calories of either protein or carbohydrate.
The AHA advises choosing fats and oils with two grams or less saturated fat per tablespoon, such as liquid and tub margarines and oils such as safflower, soybean, canola and olive.
Additional guidelines
Other AHA recommendations include limiting sodium to 2,400 mg a day, or 1 teaspoon, and limiting alcohol to no more than one drink a day for women, two for men.
Every meal doesn't have to meet all these guidelines, as long as people apply these diet recommendations to their overall eating pattern, the AHA notes.
Following these guidelines not only improves heart health but also may reduce risk for other chronic health problems, including type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and some forms of cancer, according to the AHA.
XNote: The American Heart Association's Go Red for Women initiative, designed to raise awareness of cardiovascular disease, is ongoing in 2004, particularly during February, American Heart Month. Call the Youngstown Metro AHA at (330) 965-9230 or the national AHA at (888) MYHEART for more information.

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