Within the past couple of months, two physically active men at my gym have nearly died from heart failure. One of them, a lean, athletic man in his early 40s, had no idea that what he thought was merely a bad case of heartburn was really the beginning of a massive heart attack.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. The major risk factors that can’t be changed are increasing age, being a male, heredity and race.

Luckily, there are simple ways to beat the odds from these risks.

The American Heart Association website states: “A healthy diet is one of the best weapons you have to fight cardiovascular disease.” (Other “weapons” include not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in regular physical activity, managing blood pressure and cholesterol, keeping blood sugar at healthy levels, reducing stress and limiting alcohol.)

Because a nutritionally sound diet affects these other controllable risk factors, including cholesterol, blood pressure, obesity and diabetes, it can further increase positive heart health.

Basically, a heart-healthy diet is one that is conducive for overall health — one that emphasizes daily intake of vegetables, fruits, fiber-rich foods, fish, lean protein and low-fat dairy products. Foods to limit and avoid include saturated fat (found in high-fat meats such as beef and pork, high-fat dairy products such as whole milk, cheese, ice cream and butter, and added fats such as shortening and palm oil), trans fat (think cakes, cookies, crackers, pies, margarine, fried foods as well as animal products), and too much sodium (eat 1 to 2 grams of salt a day).

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are also specific foods that can lower cholesterol and, thus, further protect the heart. The soluble fiber in oats and other high-fiber foods reduces the LDL (“bad”) cholesterol because it reduces the absorption of LDL into the bloodstream.

The high levels of omega-3 in fatty fish (doctors recommend having at least two servings a week) reduce blood pressure and risk of developing blood clots. In fact, for people who have already had heart attacks, fish oil has been shown to reduce the risk of sudden death. Fatty fish include mackerel, lake trout, herrings, sardines, albacore tuna, salmon and halibut.

Lastly, unsalted walnuts, almonds and other nuts rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids help keep blood vessels healthy (try to eat more raw than roasted). The Food and Drug Administration states that eating just a handful of nuts a day may reduce the risk of heart disease.

So in dealing with major risk factors that are beyond your control, know that there are a number of healthy choices to help nourish your heart — that are in your control.

— Tracy Shawn, MA, “The Walk & Talk Weight Loss Coach”, is a certified nutrition and wellness consultant for men and women. She helps clients achieve their weight loss goals through individualized guidance and education. Click here to contact her.