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Heart healthy lifestyles can stave off heart disease

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with just over 600,000 people dying because of it each year. More than 700,000 people have a heart attack each year.

But there is a lot within your control when it comes to preventing heart disease, lifestyle changes that can help decrease your risk of developing heart disease, according to Melanie Berdyck, a registered dietitian with Carroll Hospital.

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The first step is tackling diet. Although research is always ongoing, and despite some newer studies re-evaluating the role of saturated fat in heart disease — a 2015 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition for instance found that among a group of 14 women assigned to eat either a high carbohydrate, low fat diet; a high fat cheese based diet; or a high fat, nondairy, meat-based diet, those who ate the meat or cheese had signs of lowered risk factors for heart disease — Berdyck said there is not enough evidence to contravene the accepted dietary advice for heart health, which is to avoid saturated fats, such as butter, whole milk or poultry skin and switch to unsaturated fats, like those found olive oil and other plant sources.

"I think if anybody can just make some little changes swapping some things in their diet," Berdyck said. "One I always tell people is if people do use mayonnaise on a sandwich, you're getting a lot of extra fat, saturated fat. If you use a slice of avocado, you are getting healthy fats and you are still having a nice meal."

Replacing simple carbohydrates with complex carbohydrates, whole wheat bread for white, brown or wild rice for white, can also make a difference, according to Berdyck, while replacing sugary snacks with something like nuts can be heart healthy as well, though people should watch their consumption.

"People think [nuts] are very, very healthy and then they tend to eat more than they should, and they are very calorie dense," she said.

Diet is only one part of a heart healthy lifestyle, according to Berdyck. Exercise, even moderate activity, is equally important.

"Exercise, really increasing your cardiovascular health; just getting that blood flowing. The research with physical activity — you are going to improve your heart health," she said. "Unfortunately, we are just very sedentary. A lot of people that commute to work, they sit in a car and then they sit at a desk, and then commute home and sit on the couch."

Wearing a pedometer, Berdyck suggests, can be a great way to get a baseline measure of how active you are and then try make incremental changes from there.

"You will be surprised at how many, or how few steps you actually take," she said.

The key, just as in losing weight, Berdyck said, is to make small, easy changes in a healthier direction, so that they add up over time.

"Anything a person can do; small little things can add up. Just walking a little bit more every day is going to be very beneficial in the long term," she said. "A lot of people want to do too much at once and get discouraged. It should become a lifestyle routine."

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