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The secret to the Steelers’ winning streak may be in their diet

By Nicci Micco, January 28, 2011 - 11:55am

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The Super Bowl is almost here—and I couldn’t be any more excited to suit up in black and gold and wave my Terrible Towel for the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Woot! Woot!) Obviously these guys do everything they can to edge out their competitors—for this game, the Green Bay Packers.

Must-Have Eats: Try these Super Bowl favorites made healthier, including Beef & Bean Chile Verde (pictured above).

This includes eating healthy high-octane diets. Leslie Bonci, R.D., the Steelers’ nutritionist, makes sure that the players’ diets keep them at their best, on and off the field. Last year, I visited Bonci at the Steelers’ training camp to talk about how she keeps the players’ hearts healthy. Her all-star tips will help keep your ticker in tip-top shape too.

Heart-Healthy Habit #1: Get Trim. If you’re overweight (as two-thirds of American adults are), 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, research shows. How much do you need to lose to be in the healthy-weight range? Find out here.

Must-Read:Drop 10 Pounds with These 6 Easy Steps
Recipes to Try:This Beef & Bean Chile Verde Is Diet-Friendly!

Heart-Healthy Habit #2: Cut Back on “Bad” Fats. When Casey Hampton (a.k.a. “Big Snack”) arrived at training camp in July 2008 too heavy to play, Pittsburgh Steelers 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.

Recipes to Try:Delish (Healthy) Buffalo Chicken Tenders and Other Yummy Low-Cal Snacks to Eat During the Super Bowl.

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.)

Must-Read:Packaged Foods You Can Feel Good About Eating

Heart-Healthy Habit #3: Eat at Least 25 Grams of Fiber Daily. Studies link a high-fiber diet with a lower risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, the average American only gets about 14 grams per day. Soluble fiber in oats, beans and citrus fruits, such as 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.
Recipes to Try: Delicious Fiber-Rich Recipes That Take Off the Pounds, Satisfaction Guaranteed.

Heart-Healthy Habit #4: Have Fish Twice a Week. 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 January 2009 study in Sports Health.

Must-Read: 6 of the Healthiest Fish to Eat (6 to Avoid)
Top Food Sources of Omega-3s
Recipes to Try: Treat Your Heart to These 5-Ingredient Fish and Seafood Recipes.

Heart-Healthy Habit #5: Exercise for 30 Minutes Nearly Every Day. A 2009 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association 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.
Must-Read: 6 Ways You Can Exercise Without Even Knowing It

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TAGS: Nicci Micco, Health Blog, Diet, Good choices, Nutrition, Weight loss

Nicci Micco
Nicci Micco is co-author of EatingWell 500-Calorie Dinners. She has a master's degree in nutrition and food sciences, with a focus in weight management.

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