February 13/La Crosse, Wisconsin/La Crosse Tribune -- The best way to take care of your heart is by eating healthy, says Dr. Gerald T. Gau, a Mayo Clinic preventive cardiologist.

That means not only low-fat options but, more importantly, foods that have a low glycemic index, he said.

Gau, a leading expert on prevention of heart disease, gave a talk, "You Are What You Eat," at Franciscan Skemp's "To the Heart of the Matter" conference February 6 in La Crosse.

The glycemic index (GI) ranks carbohydrates according to their effect on blood glucose levels. Gau said choosing low GI carbs -- ones that produce only small fluctuations in blood glucose and insulin levels -- can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes and is a key to weight loss.

"When sugars spike, insulin spikes and food ends up in fat cells," Gau said.

Gau said the Mediterranean diet is low glycemic and best for a healthy heart. The diet emphasizes citrus fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, olive oil, cheese, yogurt, fish and poultry, he said.

He said high-glycemic foods include sweets, breakfast cereals, white foods such as bread, pasta and rice, fruit juices and tropical fruits. Examples of low-glycemic foods are apples, oranges, oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, shellfish, vegetables, beans, legumes and nuts, he said.

Gau, who has been involved with the National Cholesterol Education Program coordinating committee, said the best information on glycemic index is provided by Jennie Brand-Miller, who has written the books The Low GI Diet Revolution and New Glucose Revolution.

Mayo Clinic has a healthy weight pyramid that can help people lose weight and provide benefits to the heart, Gau said. "It's a common sense diet," he said.

The Mayo pyramid includes:
--Unlimited fruits and vegetables, at least three fruits and four vegetables daily.
--Four to eight daily servings of carbohydrates.
--Three to seven daily servings of protein/dairy.
--Three to five daily servings of fats.
--Up to 75 calories of sweets daily.

Besides the Mediterranean diet, Gau says the following are important to help maintain a healthy heart:
--Limit carbohydrates.
--Exercise.
--Control risk factors such blood pressure and cholesterol.
--Limited use of nuts.
Eat nuts for heart health, but in moderation

Dr. Gerald T. Gau of Mayo Clinic is a big proponent of eating nuts as part of a heart-healthy diet.

Gau said eating nuts has been found to lower the bad LDL cholesterol levels, reduce risk of developing blood clots that can cause a fatal heart attack and improve the health of the lining of arteries.

Many nuts are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, the healthy form of fatty acids that seem to help the heart, he said.

Most nuts appear to be generally healthy, though some more so than others, Gau said. He said walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts and pecans appear to be quite heart healthy.

Gau said the problem with nuts is they are high in calories. A big handful of nuts contains 400 calories, he said.

He recommends a few nuts -- or 1.5oz daily -- for heart benefits.

From the February 18, 2008, Prepared Foods e-Flash