Give yourself a belated valentine by doing the right things

Unless you live on another planet, you probably have a good idea of what it takes to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.

But actually doing it is a different matter. Eating enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish can be challenging. And the notion of exercising daily may leave you wondering what planet those gym rats really are from.

Still, there are some easy, down-to-earth ways to reduce your risk of dying from either a heart attack or stroke. What's important is to get started making small changes, sooner rather than later, said Dr. Amit Khera, director of the Program in Preventive Cardiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

"One thing that is pretty clear is heart disease is preventable," he said. "Do all the right things, and you can have an 80 percent reduction in your risks."

Heart health was in the news again late last week when former President Clinton, who has a history of heart disease, underwent a procedure for a clogged coronary artery after complaining of chest pains.

Men and women often get a late start on making lifestyle changes that could reduce their risks of developing heart disease. But men get screened more often than women.

Both sexes often put off an exercise program until they're 50 or older and then dive into an overly strenuous workout. But making small changes early in life is better than waiting until your 50s or 60s to make a lot of big changes.

Still, it's never too late.

"Heart disease is not inevitable," Khera said. "There certainly are things you can do."

Khera and Susan Rodder, a nutritionist and instructor at UT Southwestern Medical Center, offer these tips for living a heart-healthy lifestyle without investing tons of money or time.

Know your numbers.

1Know what your blood pressure, weight, cholesterol score and body mass index are.

For blood pressure, 120-139 over 80 is normal. For total cholesterol, less than 200 milligrams is desirable; 200-239 is borderline and over 240 is high risk. The body mass index is based on your height and weight. A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is normal; 25 to 29.9 is overweight.

Know your family history.

2The closer the relative and the younger they were when they had a heart attack, the greater the risk you have of having one. If your father had a heart attack at 80, it's a very different risk factor than if he was 40 when he had one. Likewise, the risk is lower if a second-degree relative, such as a cousin, has a heart attack. The more relatives who have heart disease, the greater the risk.

Be cautious when using supplements.

3Products that contain plant sterols can in fact lower your cholesterol by 10 to 15 percent. But they're not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and just because they improve cholesterol levels, there's no proof that they can reduce your risk of heart disease. They may, in fact, be harmful. As for a simple multivitamin, the latest studies show that they're not helpful in regards to heart disease.

Know what you are taking.

4Red-yeast rice is a popular product to lower cholesterol, and it does work. It contains the same active ingredient as Lovastatin, a medication made by Merck. People think that they are avoiding stantins by taking red-yeast rice, but they're not. The difference: Red yeast rice is not FDA-controlled, so you can't be sure about what you're getting. Likewise fish oil. Just because the label says the capsule contains 1,000 milligrams of fish oil doesn't mean that's all you're getting. The capsules often contain other ingredients that do nothing to improve heart health.

Go organic.

5Yes, it usually costs more than other produce, but it's well worth the price when you consider that the taste and freshness make it more tempting to eat those foods. The popularity of organic products is starting to lower their cost and increase their availability at grocery stores. Another option: Check out fresh local produce at a farmers market.

Understand why BMI is not one-size-fits-all.

6The body mass index is a broad guideline and the numbers don't apply to everyone.

You can be thin and still be at risk for heart disease because of genetics, where fat is distributed on your body or perhaps your ethnicity. A BMI higher than 25 is considered high for a woman, but among Asians, a BMI over 23 is considered high.

Drink up, but only a little.

7Wine is good for you in moderation, which means one glass a day for women and two for men. In moderation, wine can lower your risks, but in excess, it can raise your triglycerides. No need to start drinking, but if you already like a glass of wine with dinner, drink up. Any wine -- not just red -- can be beneficial.

Pay attention to sodium.

8Most people get way more sodium than they need. Adults should get no more than 1,500 to 2,400 milligrams a day. And most of it -- 77 percent -- comes from prepared or processed food. For years, sodium-free soups, sauces and other products cost more than similar products with salt. But recently a somewhat silent movement to lower sodium content has taken hold. Companies that make soups, sauces and other usually high-in-sodium products are coming out with reduced-sodium versions, and they're selling them for the same price as other products in their line. A lot of people still think sodium-free products are going to be more expensive, but often they're not, so it's worth checking out the labels and prices. Make substitutions as needed. For example, Sunny Paris Seasoning is salt-free and extremely popular, even though it costs $28 for 13 ounces. A good substitute is Cajun's Choice, which costs about $2.99 a bottle.

You don't have to hit the gym, but you have to get moving.

9Walk 30 minutes a day. Dance. Break exercise up into 10 minutes in the morning, 10 at lunch and 10 at night if you have to. Go to a class or find a partner to encourage you to exercise every day. Put it on your calendar, but build up gradually. Weekend warriors are notorious for getting injured. True, the risk of sudden death goes up when you exercise strenuously. But that risk is still less for those who exercise regularly long-term.

Plan your lifestyle changes.

10It's all about moderation and gradual changes. You know you should eat more veggies, but if you hate broccoli, try puréeing it and hiding it in tomato sauce. If you need to lose weight, aim for a pound a week, not five. If you love red meat, shop for the leanest cuts and set aside one day a week to eat an all-vegetable meal. If you love butter, switch to a cholesterol-lowering product gradually. Give your palate time to adjust.

Favorite foods

Nutritionist Susan Rodder helps people with heart disease plan menus that they can live with. Here are some of her suggestions for eating healthier:

Ragu no-sugar-added tomato and basil sauce

Dole Perfect Harvest salad

Bush's low-sodium black beans

Dreamfield's High Fiber pasta or Ronzoni Smart Taste pasta

Brown rice


Cajun's Choice seasoning

Lemon chicken

Serves 4

2 lemons

1 medium onion

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1/2 tablespoon dried or 1 tablespoon fresh chopped oregano

11/2-2 pounds chicken breast meat

1. Slice lemons and onion and spread on the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch glass dish.

2. Slowly pour chicken broth into dish.

3. Sprinkle oregano over the broth, lemons and onion.

4. Place chicken pieces on top, cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

For a complete meal: Microwave a package of broccoli according to directions. Serve chicken with 1 cup cooked barley, 1/2 cup broccoli and one 100-calorie Keebler Sandies shortbread cookie for a total meal that has 641 calories and costs $4.28 per serving to make.