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Diet and heart health

This is an excerpt from Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook-5th Edition by Nancy Clark.

Read more about how your diet and heart health are related in
Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 5th Edition.

Diet and Heart Health

Cardiovascular disease (CVD; cardio = heart; vascular = blood vessels) is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States; it is not just a "man's disease." Whether by stroke, heart attack, or heart failure, CVD takes the lives of more than 10 times as many women as breast cancer and, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), kills one in three women. Men may develop CVD 10 years earlier than women do (because women are protected by estrogen until menopause), but CVD claims the lives of 7 percent more women than men.

Two ways to reduce your risk of CVD are being physically fit and eating wisely. Yet, some active people believe they are exempt from the food rules about heart-healthy eating; they assume that being physically fit protects them from heart disease. Wrong! A friend of mine, a seemingly healthy 48-year-old marathoner, died suddenly of a massive heart attack. He'd run 2 hours and 10 minutes, stopped his watch, and was later found dead in the running path. Everyone was shocked.

Unfortunately, even the most health-conscious people can find themselves confused by the constant updates and changes regarding nutrition and heart health. This leaves us wondering what the real answers are to questions such as: Is beef bad? What about eggs? Should I use butter or margarine? The answers vary from person to person because we each have a unique genetic makeup. It won't be long before dietary recommendations will be based on genetic tests. But for today, here are suggestions for optimizing your diet based on the latest nutrition studies, so you can at least delay CVD if you cannot escape it.

Know Your Numbers

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that accumulates in the walls of the blood vessels throughout the body, especially those in the heart, and contributes to hardening of the arteries. This buildup limits blood flow to the heart muscle and contributes to heart attacks. You consume cholesterol when you eat animal foods; cholesterol is a part of animal cells. Your body also makes cholesterol. Foods with saturated fat (butter, lard) and partially hydrogenated, or trans, fat (processed foods, stick margarine) can increase the level of cholesterol in the blood, and thereby increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Table 2.1 provides examples of how you can easily tweak your food choices to reduce your intake of saturated fats.

Because genetics plays a large role in heart and blood vessel health, you may have a blood cholesterol level that puts you at a high risk for developing cardiovascular disease even if you eat a healthy diet. One 28-year-old triathlete was dismayed when he discovered that his cholesterol was very high. He likely inherited this trait from his father and grandfather, both of whom had had heart attacks in their 50s. Another client, a runner with anorexia, had high cholesterol despite her very low-fat diet. In her case, the anorexia contributed to the elevated cholesterol, a common finding with this condition (the solution is to restore weight to an appropriate level).

Eat for Heart Health

Tweaking your daily food intake by making small heart-healthy choices can accumulate to make a big difference in the long run. The American Heart Association (AHA; recommends the following diet and lifestyle choices to reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease:

  • Reaching or maintaining a healthy weight
  • Enjoying a diet that is rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain, high-fiber foods
  • Consuming at least 7 ounces (200 g) of oily fish per week
  • Limiting your intake of saturated fat, trans fat (in foods with partially hydrogenated oils), and cholesterol
  • Replacing saturated animal fat with healthy unsaturated fat from nuts, avocados, and vegetable oils
  • Limiting your intake of beverages and foods with added sugars to control your weight
  • Choosing and preparing foods with little or no salt
  • Consuming alcohol in moderation (if at all)
  • Making reasonably healthy choices when you dine away from home
  • Being active for at least 30 minutes most days of the week

Lean Beef and Heart Health

Athletes commonly shun beef, believing it to be an artery clogger. Although that is true for greasy burgers and hot dogs, small portions of lean beef aren't so bad after all. In terms of nutrition, lean beef is an excellent source of iron, zinc, and other nutrients athletes need. Despite popular belief, beef is not exceptionally high in cholesterol; it has a cholesterol value similar to that of chicken and fish. Additionally, we now know that cholesterol, which was once thought to contribute to heart disease, is less of a culprit than saturated fat. However, beef tends to have more saturated fat than chicken or fish, so that's why it still has a bad name among health watchers. Saturated fat is hard at room temperature. For example, hard beef fat differs from soft (less saturated) chicken fat.

The AHA recommends that we consume less than 7 percent of our calories from saturated fat (the average intake in the United States is about 11 percent) and a total of 25 to 35 percent of calories from all kinds of dietary fat. The AHA has a fat calculator ( that helps you determine how much of each type of fat can fit into your daily food plan and how to translate that information into food. For example, if you are on an 1,800-calorie reducing diet, 7 percent (14 g) is just about the amount of saturated fat you'd consume in a McDonald's Quarter Pounder With Cheese. If you are very active and require 3,000 calories per day, 7 percent of calories from saturated fat equates to about the amount in Burger King's Double Whopper With Cheese.

But not all beef is fatty. The healthfulness of beef and other meats has improved because today's farmers have learned how to raise leaner animals and because butchers are trimming more of the fat from the meat in stores. You can easily fit beef (and pork and lamb) into a heart-healthy sports diet if you select lean cuts, such as eye of round, rump roast, sirloin tip, flank steak, top round, and tenderloin, and eat smaller portions, limiting yourself to a piece of lean protein about the size of the palm of your hand. You can more easily consume lean beef when you are preparing meals at home than when you are in a restaurant that prides itself on juicy, tender (read as "loaded with saturated fat") beef. Some people enjoy buffalo meat (bison) as a lean alternative to beef.

Read more from Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 5th Edition by Nancy Clark.

More Excerpts From Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook 5th Edition