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Reducing Heart Disease Risk
What Do We Know Now?

by Bonnie Bruce, DrPH, MPH, RD

Following a heart-healthy eating plan will result in your eating less fried or breaded foods, deli and processed meats such as sausage, and foods and beverages with high amounts of added fats and sugars. All of these have been related to increasing the risk of a variety of chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. In addition, following this advice also means that you will not have to give up your favorite foods completely, just how often you eat them. You shouldn’t have to totally avoid any specific food, unless you have other special medical conditions or are on certain medicines. This way of eating leaves room for an occasional treat or special food.

If you would like to learn more about eating this way, check out the www.Choosemyplate.gov Web site, where you can practice designing your own meals. This way of eating is compatible with most diabetes meal plans, as long as attention is given to individually recommended amounts of calories, carbohydrate, and other nutrients.

How much a person weighs is also related to his risk of heart disease. Nearly two-thirds of people in the United States are overweight or obese, many to the point where it affects their health and increases their risk for heart disease and complications from diabetes. But if you are overweight, it takes losing as little as 7% of your current weight to improve your blood glucose and blood pressure levels, and reductions of both can help reduce your heart disease risk.

Losing weight can be very complicated and fraught with challenges. How much you eat, your physical activity level, and even how you think about food play roles. Taking a moderate approach is key to success. Think in terms of baby steps. Set a small weight-loss goal, such as 3–5 pounds, and begin by making small changes that are easy for you to put into action. Some examples might include leaving a few tablespoons of food on your plate at each meal, buying individually packaged portions of foods such as yogurt or oatmeal, measuring out your portions, using a smaller plate, taking a walk at lunchtimes, and learning about your thoughts around food. For example, ask yourself whether you are eating because you are hungry, or whether it’s because you are bored or unhappy.

Also, make sure to give yourself ample credit and let yourself feel good about what you achieve, especially on a daily basis. It is important for you to enjoy your successes as they happen. If you have an off day, remind yourself that you are still making progress; even if it means you took one step forward and two steps back. Remember, it doesn’t take a large weight loss to begin reaping health benefits. If you’re having trouble figuring out how to make healthful dietary changes on your own, see a registered dietitian (RD) for tailored advice. To read more about healthy weight loss, go to the Web site of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, www.Eatright.org, and click on “Public.”

Setting priorities
Among lifestyle factors related to reducing heart disease risk, there is little doubt that not smoking is of paramount importance. But if you don’t smoke, what should you do first?

There is no scientific agreement as to whether being physically active, eating well, or being at a healthy weight is the most effective first step for reducing your heart disease risk. It is entirely possible that they work together in ways as yet unknown. Perhaps a potpourri approach, where you blend together some aspects of each, will help take care of this. Logically, the more action you take, the more likely you will benefit from that action.

In the end, one cannot forget that each person is unique. A one-size-fits-all approach to reducing heart disease risk is unlikely to work for everyone. Each person’s plan may be a bit different. Regardless of what you choose to do, however, it is never too early to start. The time to begin reducing your heart disease risk is now.

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