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