Taking your health to heart

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In June 2006, the American Heart Association (AHA) released its latest Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations for healthy Americans. This update to the 2000 dietary guidelines continues to focus on making long-term changes in diet and other lifestyle factors associated with cardiovascular disease.

Six years ago, all Americans were urged to cut their intake of saturated fat plus trans fat (also called trans-fatty acids) to no more than 10 percent of calories daily. Cholesterol intake was to be limited to no more than 300 milligrams per day.

The AHA continues to say up to 300 mg of dietary cholesterol a day is acceptable; however, the new guidelines recommend that Americans lower their saturated fat and trans fat intake to no more that eight percent of total calories. Currently, the average American diet contains about 17 percent of calories from these two cholesterol-raising fats.

What is saturated fat and trans fat? Saturated fat raises your blood cholesterol more than anything else you eat. It is found in animal foods and some plant foods. You can lower your saturated fat intake by limiting fatty red meats, butter, whole milk, cheeses and processed meats such as bologna, sausage and hot dogs.

Trans fat is found in processed foods such as stick margarines, vegetable shortening, fried foods, cookies, crackers and salad dressings. Trans fats raise levels of LDL cholesterol, also called "bad" cholesterol. If you want to consume less trans fat, look on the label for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils and avoid these foods.

For the first time, the AHA discourages the consumption of refined sugar, particularly in soft drinks. There is growing evidence that sugar promotes weight gain and adds "empty calories" to the diet.

Another change since 2000 is the AHA's removal of its earlier support of increasing soy protein in order to lower LDL cholesterol.

No one can argue with the AHA's current recommendation to attain and maintain a healthy body weight and be more physically active. This advice is also the base of the MyPyramid food guide.

In summary, the 2006 AHA recommendations for Americans age 2 and older include:

n Eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and whole-grain foods;

n Avoid use of and exposure to tobacco products;

n Achieve and maintain healthy cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose levels;

n Reduce saturated and trans-fatty acids in the diet;

n Minimize the intake of food and beverages that contain added sugars;

n Emphasize physical activity and weight control;

n Keep sodium intake below 2,300 mg per day.

Although much of this information is just good common sense and may sound repetitious, heart disease is still the number-one killer of Americans. We could all do ourselves a favor by taking these guidelines to heart.

For more about the AHA guidelines and other heart-healthy information, visit the www.americanheart.org web site.

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