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When Heart Month Gets Personal

Updated: Mar 27

February is American Heart Month, most likely because Valentine's Day is the prominent holiday that month.

It's also a time to think about the health of your heart, which is a very important thing to think about!

For me, American Heart Month has personal significance because of an event that changed my life forever: my dad's heart attack in 1975.

I was in high school at the time and my dad was 48 years old. He worked as a lineman for a telephone company and climbed telephone poles every day for 20-some years. He also took care of the small farm we lived on in rural Kansas so he got plenty of physical activity.

But he also smoked a pack of cigarettes every day and my mom cooked everything in Crisco shortening, an artery-clogging fat. My dad often said that "a meal isn't a meal without dessert", so we always had homemade cookies, cakes, pies, or some other kind of rich gooey concoction after dinner most every night of the week. Combined with his genetics, it was the perfect storm for heart disease.

After his heart attack, he went in for quadruple bypass surgery - referred to as "open heart surgery" back then. I was scared to death he wouldn't survive. But he did survive AND he quit smoking. My mom changed her cooking and my fascination with nutrition and heart disease was born.

This fascination led me to pursue a career as a registered dietitian and I became passionate about healthy eating to prevent heart disease. In the 1980s, I worked as an outpatient dietitian, and then in the 90's I worked as a cardiac dietitian, helping families who were going through the same thing I went through with my dad in high school. I loved what I did and found the personal experience to be immensely helpful in relating to my patient's families.

Back then, low fat diets were highly recommended by the American Heart Association and the American Dietetic Association. This was for good reason. Plenty of studies showed that diets high in saturated fat were linked to high cholesterol levels, which increased the risk for heart disease. But as time went on, we have learned that other dietary factors are just as important for heart health and that low fat diets are not easy to follow.

Over the years my own diet became more plant-based, similar to the Mediterranean Diet, and it has served me well. I eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean meat (mostly fish and chicken), eggs, and low-fat dairy.

I've also become more flexible in my eating, after seeing what chronic dieting and "orthorexia" (an obsession with eating only foods that are considered healthy) does to people. For many, it leads to binge eating the foods they restrict themselves from, which then leads to feelings of guilt and shame. More on that in another blog!

Fast forward to 2023, and unfortunately, heart disease is still the #1 killer in the US. In fact, consider these crazy facts:

  • Approximately 20 million adults age 20 and older have coronary artery disease (CAD) right now.

  • One person in the US dies of CAD every 34 seconds.

  • In 2020, two in 10 deaths from CAD happened in adults less than 65 years old.

  • In 2018, heart disease cost the US $229 billion in healthcare dollars.

The ironic fact is that heart disease is mostly preventable, or at least delayed, by lifestyle. Genetics also play a role. But what we eat, how active we are, and whether we choose to smoke play the biggest roles in whether, how soon, and to what extent we develop CAD.

My dad was lucky that he survived his heart attack and bypass surgery. He actually went on to have another bypass surgery 14 years later and lived another 19 years after that surgery, but in between those procedures he was active and living a good life.

His cardiologist said that he lived that long because of the many changes he made to his lifestyle after the first surgery: he quit smoking, reduced his intake of saturated fat (thanks to my mom!), and maintained a high level of physical activity until he died. If he hadn’t made those changes, he would not have lived to be 79.

Next week I'll write more about the importance of cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) in preventing heart disease. It might surprise you to learn that CRF is a better predictor of early mortality from CAD than body weight is. Stay tuned for info!

Need help with your diet? Schedule a Discovery Call with me today and we can talk about what you can do to keep your heart healthy!


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