By David Huneycutt, M.D., Cardiologist
Eat better, exercise and lose weight. These are easily among the top 10 resolutions many of us make at the start of a new year. But making real and significant changes can be hard work. It often helps to have a plan that includes making small, but lasting changes that can eventually build into a healthier lifestyle, and result in a healthier heart.
So if you have already waivered on your New Year’s promises, try breaking those commitments down to smaller steps that you can easily incorporate and maintain in your daily life, and 2017 can still be your heart healthiest year yet.
#1 Eat Healthier
To start, let’s acknowledge that we are what we eat. Science has clearly demonstrated that the best nutrition plan to prevent or reverse heart disease is a plant-based diet that eliminates animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs. But jumping right into a vegan diet can be quite daunting, so try taking baby steps in that direction.
• Start by doing a food inventory. Is your house filled with potato chips, frozen pizzas, chocolate, cookies and sodas? If so, pack up the junk and replace it with low-fat, low-sugar alternatives.
• Fill your pantry and refrigerator with whole grain foods, vegetables, whole fruit (instead of fruit juices) and lean meats such as poultry and fish. Consider substituting beans and plant-based proteins in place of meat for more meals each month.
• Plan your meals. Spend a little time each weekend prepping meals ahead, so you are not temp ted to grab a fast food burger or pizza on the way home from a long hard day. Include the whole family in planning and preparing meals, and make it a fun activity.
• Try to plan meatless meals one or two days a week. There are tons of meatless meal plans and recipes available on the internet that are quick and easy to prepare, and so tasty that you might consider eating meat less often. When you do include meat on the menu, choose lean poultry or fish. Keep meat portions to 3-4 ounces per serving and round out the meal with vegetables and whole grains.
• Keep washed, chopped vegetables and fresh fruit in the refrigerator for quick snacks.
Gradually incorporate healthier eating into your everyday life, and don’t quit when you slip up. The standard American diet is so poor that any positive changes you make will be a step in the right direction. And healthier eating can lead to the second important change, weight loss.
#2 Lose weight, feel better
Excess weight and body fat can significantly increase your risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. But just as research has found that weight gain increases risk, studies have also shown that weight loss, even in small amounts, can lead to big improvements in cardiovascular risk factors. Researchers estimate that for every 2.2 pounds of weight lost, total cholesterol levels decrease by 1 percent, LDL cholesterol is lowered by 0.7 percent and HDL cholesterol is increased by 0.2 percent. Likewise, many studies have found that losing 5 to 10 percent of body weight results in significant decreases in triglycerides, waist circumference, glucose, insulin and blood pressure.
Losing excess weight can make you feel better both physically and emotionally and can help you live a longer, healthier life. And in fact, you don’t have to lose a tremendous amount of weight to become healthier. Even a modest weight loss of 5 percent to 10 percent of your starting weight can lead to significant health benefits. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School concluded the following:
• People with high blood pressure who lost a modest 10 pounds over six months reduced their systolic blood pressure by 2.8 mm Hg and their diastolic blood pressure by 2.5 mm Hg. These reductions in blood pressure were equivalent to the reductions brought about by treatment with some blood pressure medications.
• Weight loss is so effective, that many people with high blood pressure can stop taking blood pressure medicine after they lose weight, for as long as they are able to keep it off.
• In a study of people who were at risk for type 2 diabetes, those who lost just 7 percent of their weight and exercised about 30 minutes a day cut their risk of diabetes by nearly 60 percent
Maintaining a healthy weight or focusing on lifestyle changes that lead to a 5 to 10 percent loss in body weight can play a significant role in reducing the risk of heart disease. You can begin today to make those changes with healthier eating and by adding some movement to each and every day.
#3 Move More
Exercise can certainly lower your risk for heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, but it can also improve your mood and boost your ability to fend off infection. Over the past 50 years, hundreds of studies have demonstrated that exercise helps you feel better and live longer. But that doesn’t mean you need to run out to purchase expensive equipment or pay for a gym membership.
The most natural and effective form of exercise is walking. If you have been inactive for a while, you just need to get started, even if it is for a few minutes each day. Set a goal you can achieve today and another for tomorrow. Then work toward an overall goal of at least 30 minutes a day of brisk walking. If you are busy—like most of us—split your walks into two 15 minute periods each day.
Make it enjoyable. Take the dog for a walk, or walk with a friend. Some find it motivating to wear a device that counts your steps each day, so they can challenge themselves to increase their daily steps over time. Figure out what works for you and stick to it. Before you know it, brisk walking can become part of your daily routine, and your heart will thank you for it.
Additional resources for planning heart health meals include: Forks Over Knives and Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.
David C. Huneycutt, Jr. M.D. FACC is a board certified cardiologist practicing with Centennial Heart in Nashville. He is driven by his passion for helping patients attain optimum health through intensive dietary modification and encourages the adoption of a plant-based diet in the management of heart disease, hypertension and obesity. Dr. Honeycutt has been highly successful in helping patients improve their health and reduce or eliminate the need for medication through aggressive attention to nutrition.