Eat Your Heart Out

Forget what you know about eggs, margarine and salt. The conventional wisdom has been overturned--repeatedly--by surprising new research

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A few decades ago, taking care of your heart didn't seem all that complicated. You ate a balanced diet, didn't drink too much and got some fresh air and exercise--a round of golf, maybe. That was about it. Not that everyone, or even most people, actually lived up to these standards. But if you fell short, at least you knew what to feel guilty about.

Then we started hearing from the scientists. People who thought they were doing everything right, it turned out, were actually abusing their bodies--and in particular, their hearts. The cholesterol in steaks, cream, butter and especially those breakfast eggs was clogging arteries like sludge in a stopped-up drainpipe. Salt was poison: it drove up blood pressure and put an unhealthy strain on the ticker. Overeating and becoming overweight were a sure ticket to a coronary.

So, the thinking was, better cut out the steak, treat yourself to one egg a week (if you must), switch from butter to margarine and hide the saltshaker. Oh, and don't waste time with golf. Vigorous, pulse-pounding exercise was the only way to keep your weight within limits--and just as important, your heart properly toned. It was a spartan regimen and made folks who didn't follow it feel guiltier than ever, but it retained the virtue of being comprehensible.

Recently, however, the scientists seem to have gone mad. Hardly a week goes by without some expert somewhere issuing a new report declaring that a particular food or vitamin or activity or condition will either restore your cardiovascular health or ruin it--and as often as not, the new advice seems to contradict the old. Among the new findings:

--EGGS aren't nearly as bad for the heart as doctors used to think. Sure, they're packed with cholesterol. But scientists now know that eating cholesterol doesn't necessarily result in high levels of harmful cholesterol in the blood, where the damage is done.

--HOMOCYSTEINE, a substance found in the blood, may turn out to be as important a risk factor for heart disease as dietary cholesterol.

--SATURATED FAT, the kind found in red meat, butter and other animal products, may be a bigger threat to the heart and blood vessels than cholesterol.

--OTHER FATS--olive oil, other vegetable oils and the oil found in salmon and tuna--can actually drive down bad cholesterol and keep blood flowing freely.

--MARGARINE can be just as harmful as butter, if not worse; a process that stiffens vegetable oil into a butter-like stick also transforms it into an artery blocker. In general, the softer the margarine, the better. New butter substitutes, such as Benecol, can lower blood cholesterol.

--SALT has been considered taboo because it raises blood pressure. But it's not clear whether it's a problem for those whose pressure is normal.

--EXERCISE need not be pulse pounding to be beneficial, say experts. A little gardening or strenuous housework isn't a bad prescription for cardiovascular health.

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