You might think you don’t have much in common with professional football players, but it when it comes keeping your heart healthy, you’d be smart to follow the same advice that Leslie Bonci, R.D., nutritionist for the Pittsburgh Steelers, gives the team. These heart-healthy “plays” can help you lower your cholesterol, reduce your blood pressure and improve your overall health.
Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch dropped 12 pounds and reduced his total cholesterol about 20 percent between the end of one season and the start of the next. (Major diet changes: making better choices when eating out; swapping wine in place of apple martinis, sugar free Jell-O for gummy worms and popcorn for Doritos.) Losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can result in better blood pressure, lower risk for diabetes and improved cholesterol levels, according to various research studies.
When Pittsburgh Steeler Casey Hampton (a.k.a. “Big Snack”) arrived at training camp a few years ago too heavy to play, team nutritionist Leslie Bonci worked with the team’s chef to create meals designed to slash Hampton’s intake of calories and saturated fats, which can elevate “bad” LDL cholesterol, leading to plaque buildup in arteries. In place of fried chicken wings, Bonci gave Hampton grilled chicken strips with low-fat dipping sauces. Other ways to reduce saturated fat: replace butter with olive and canola oils, which contain good amounts of heart healthy monounsaturated fats; choose lean meats, poultry, fish and beans instead of higher fat meats; select nonfat or low-fat milk and yogurt in place of whole-milk versions; eat full-fat cheeses sparingly. Avoid trans fats, which also increase LDL cholesterol, by skipping foods that contain “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil” in their ingredient lists. (Big culprits include packaged snacks, crackers, bakery goods and some margarines.)
Studies link a high-fiber diet with a lower risk of heart disease—one reason Bonci suggests reaching for fiber-rich foods all day. Soluble fiber in oats, beans and citrus fruits, like oranges, helps reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. Opting for whole grains, such as brown rice and whole wheat pasta, boosts your intake of total fiber (by way of insoluble fiber, which is also good for digestion) and can decrease levels of triglycerides, another “unhealthy” fat in the blood, as a diet rich in refined carbohydrates may stoke the body’s production of triglycerides.
Doing so may reduce your risk of heart disease by 30 percent, research suggests. Omega 3 fats in fish lower triglycerides and blood pressure; they also can help prevent irregular heart rhythms. Have trouble fitting in fish? Speak with your doctor about fish oil supplements—taking them daily helped current Pittsburgh Steelers to improve their cholesterol profiles, according to a one study in Sports Health.
A Journal of the American Medical Association study credited NFL players’ high level of physical activity with helping to mitigate the heart risks associated with being overweight. You don’t need to be a professional athlete to benefit from exercise. Moderate exercise (e.g., brisk walking) will help to keep your heart healthy.
Don’t assume that just because your body weight, exercise habits and diet are healthy that your blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels are too. Your genes may predispose you to cardiovascular disease. Talk with your health care provider about heart-related screens that might be important for you.