February is American Heart Month, which means it’s a great time to make sure you are keeping your heart healthy.

Healthy eating habits, regular physical activity, not smoking and maintaining a healthy body weight lessens your risk of a heart attack. Your blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels are two ways to see if you are at risk of heart disease, heart attack or stroke.

A total blood cholesterol of 200 mg/dL is ideal. Your total cholesterol is made up of three parts: low-density lipoproteins (LDL), high density lipoproteins (HDL) and triglycerides. The following provides tips on ways to improve your total cholesterol level.

• Strive to get your HDL, or good cholesterol, above 40 mg/dL. The best way to raise you HDL cholesterol is to do aerobic physical activity at least 30 minutes most (five to seven) days per week. Other ways to increase HDL cholesterol include losing excess body fat, avoiding tobacco and eating oily fish (salmon, trout, herring) twice a week because it is rich in heart-healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids).

• Keep your LDL, or bad cholesterol, below 100 mg/dL. To lower your LDL cholesterol, limit the amount of saturated fat in your diet. Saturated fat is in meats (sausage, bacon, ground beef, hot dogs), dairy products (cheese, butter, cream), and the skin on chicken and turkey. Healthier sources of protein include low-fat or fat-free dairy products (skim milk, low-fat cottage cheese, fat-free yogurt), skinless chicken breasts, lean cuts of meat, soy protein (tofu, soybeans, soymilk), beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.

• Aim for a triglyceride level less than 150 mg/dL. To lower your triglyceride level, do regular physical activity, maintain a healthy weight, limit foods and drinks high in sugar, and limit alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.

• Limit trans fats. Trans fats are a double whammy — they will raise your bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol. Trans fats are found in vegetable shortening, stick margarine, fried foods and baked products such as cookies, crackers, pies and pastries. To find out if a food contains trans fat, look at the Nutrition Facts label and look for the words “partially hydrogenated oil” on the list of ingredients.

• Eat more fiber. Aim for 25 to 35 grams of fiber every day by eating lots of vegetables, fruit and whole grains such as oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, whole grain cereal and whole wheat bread.

A blood pressure of 120 over 80 is ideal. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart attack and strokes. Some of the ways to lower your blood pressure are the same tips to lower your cholesterol:

• Regular exercise

• Limit saturated and trans fats

• A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy

• Not smoking

• Limit alcohol

• Limit your salt (or sodium) intake. Salt may be a factor for high blood pressure in some people. You should limit your sodium to no more than 1,500 milligrams a day, which is about 1 teaspoon of salt. This goes beyond limiting use of the salt shaker. Many packaged foods as well as cured meats such as bacon, ham, sausage and luncheon meats have high sodium contents. Look for the word “sodium” on the Nutrition Facts label on food packages.

A heart healthy lifestyle is not just for people who are at risk for a heart attack. People of all ages can benefit from healthy eating habits and regular exercise.

When we are practicing these healthy behaviors, we feel good. When we feel good, it’s easier to manage our busy lifestyles.

Jennifer Russell is an area child and family development agent for the Mississippi State University Extension Service. You may contact her at 453-6803 or jtb20@ext.msstate.edu.

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