You may worry about heart disease and for good reason. Heart disease is the number one killer of women each year, claiming more lives than all types of cancer combined.

Fortunately, the everyday choices that you make can have a big impact on your risk for heart disease. The foods that you eat play an important role in your overall health.

To demonstrate the importance of a healthy diet and introduce new food choices to local residents, Blue Mountain Health Systems recently offered a cooking demonstration and seminar, "Cook for a Healthy Heart: Women and Heart Disease."

"Food is the first step," said Nancy Matyas, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian who led the cooking demonstration. "It's very helpful to monitor what you eat. Eat a well-balanced diet, and eat in moderation."

Nearly all of the top risk factors for heart disease can be managed or prevented with a healthy diet. These risks include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

All adults should have their blood pressure monitored at least once per year, and should aim to have a reading below 120/80, said Michael Obert, a nurse practitioner with Blue Mountain Health Systems who led the seminar.

Even readings slightly above 120/80 can increase your risk of heart disease and should be monitored by a doctor, he added. A low-sodium diet can help to control blood pressure.

"The biggest thing is to look at labels, and to choose low sodium foods," said Obert, noting that the average adult should have about 2,000 mg of sodium each day.

"Two-thousand mg is not a lot, maybe about the amount of sodium in a teaspoon of salt. But it's important to stick to this level to keep your blood pressure down."

Adults can also reduce or prevent high blood pressure by eating more fruits and vegetables and less red meat and saturated fats.

High cholesterol can also increase your risk of developing heart disease. A healthy cholesterol level is under 200 mg/dL. Try to keep LDL or "bad" cholesterol under 130 mg/dL. LDL can be controlled by diet, said Obert.

To control or prevent high cholesterol, eat less than 300 mg of cholesterol per day.

Foods that can lower the amount of cholesterol in your blood include oatmeal and other high fiber foods, fish, walnuts and almonds and olive oil.

While you should strive to have a low LDL number, HDL or "good" cholesterol should be above 50 mg/dL. HDL can be increased by exercising regularly.

Diabetes can increase the risk of heart disease by damaging arteries. To reduce your risk of diabetes, decrease the number of "concentrated sweets" that you eat each day.

These sweets might include soda, candy and other high-sugar foods.

The risk factors for heart disease that we can't control, including our age, gender and family history, can be somewhat mitigated by a healthy lifestyle, Obert adds.

That means stop smoking, exercise for 15 to 30 minutes most days, and eat a healthy diet to prevent risk factors such as high blood pressure.

"Men are at higher risk for heart disease throughout life. Women are thought to be protected somewhat by their hormones," says Obert, but this protection goes away after menopause.

Once women stop producing protective hormones such as estrogen, they are at equal risk for heart disease.

"Women need to be aware of their heart disease risks," says Obert.

Obert and Matyas concluded the program by preparing and serving barbecued tofu and vegetables, a meal that followed their healthy heart recommendations.

This meal is filled with colorful vegetables and healthy fats. It also includes tofu, which is a good source of low-fat protein.

Barbecued Tofuand Vegetables

Ingredients

2 cups onions

1 cup mixed vegetables (peppers, squash and zucchini are a good mix, but your favorite vegetables will work)

1 clove minced garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

8 ounces soft tofu

Sauce ingredients

1 tablespoon soy sauce

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 tablespoon brown sugar

cup water

Chop all vegetables. Mix the sauce and set aside.

Heat oil in skillet and sauté vegetables. Add garlic and tofu. Sauté for 5 minutes.

Pour sauce over tofu and simmer until thickened.