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Six Steps for a Healthy Heart

Six simple steps can help fend off or slow the progress of heart disease, the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S.

You can protect your heart by following these six lifestyle and diet habits, says Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D.:

1. Waist Not, Want Not
Excess weight increases the risk for high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, factors that escalate the chances of developing heart disease. One way to control calories, which will help manage weight, is to choose "low energy-dense" foods. Such foods supply few calories but are still filling and leave you feeling satisfied. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, cooked whole grains and broth-based soups are typically high in water, fiber and nutrients, but moderate in calories, so you feel fuller after eating them and are likely to consume fewer calories. So, snack on watermelon, have a fiber-rich bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, a bowl of vegetable soup for lunch, and add an extra serving of steamed vegetables to dinner.

2. Don't be a Salty Dog
High-sodium diets are linked to an increased risk for high blood pressure, a major risk factor in heart disease. Limit daily sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams, or about one teaspoon of salt. Use salt substitutes when cooking. Look for lower-sodium varieties of your favorite foods, including foods with the American Heart Association's heart check mark on the label.

3. Boost Nutrients
A varied diet filled with minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and fish, is rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and omega-3s, which help keep the heart in top shape. Salmon with a side spinach salad is a delicious example of a heart-healthy meal loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. Add some sliced watermelon, which contains citrulline, an amino acid that helps maintain the arteries, blood flow and heart health.

4. Think Produce
A diet rich in vegetables and fruits is key for a healthy heart. Find simple and tasty ways to include at least two servings in each meal and at least one serving at snack time. Aim for at least the MyPyramid daily recommendations of 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit. For example, toss dried fruit onto a tossed salad or add grated carrots and broccoli to pasta sauce. You even can drink your produce. Blend watermelon with lemon yogurt and a touch of ginger for a refreshing midmorning snack. Besides, produce such as watermelon is cholesterol-free, fat-free and very low in sodium.

5. Cut Back on Saturated and Trans Fats
Choose extra-lean meats and poultry without skin, preferably breast meat. Then prepare those meats with little or no saturated or trans fats. Choose nonfat or 1% low-fat milk products. When choosing processed foods, make sure they are trans-fat free. Also watch portions; a serving of meat should be three to four ounces, about the size of a deck of cards.

6. Move More
Balance a healthy diet with daily physical activity. Take the stairs instead of the elevator; wear a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day; opt for a bike ride instead of an afternoon on the couch. Regular physical activity can help reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels and drop pounds and is a great stress reliever. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.

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