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Calorie Count Blog

A Heart to Heart: The Truth About Healthy Eating

By +Carolyn Richardson on Jan 31, 2012 10:00 AM in Healthy Eating

Tomorrow February begins--the month when we see red and pink hearts adorning shopping centers, stuffed animals, and boxes of chocolate. With that kind of built-in association, it's only natural that The American Heart Association (AHA) observes February as Heart Health month. So before you reach for the ganache-filled truffles for your sweetie, think on this: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the U.S.; however, we can reduce our risk through healthy diet and lifestyle choices.

You Can't Exercise Away Your Heart Problem

Like many of us, ABC News anchor Bill Weir didn't think about his heart on a regular basis. After all, he was a healthy weight, exercised daily, and rarely got sick. Assigned a story on heart health, he went to interview Dr. David Agus, who has treated Lance Armstrong, Steve Jobs, and Ted Kennedy, and is a proponent of preventative medicine.  Weir underwent several tests, including a cardiac CT scan, mostly to create a visual example for viewers--never thinking they would possibly find something wrong. When the results came in, he was shocked to find not a clean bill of health, but rather a calcium deposit and lesions on his arteries that, according to Dr. Agus, could lead to heart attack and even death within five years.

What's Bad for Your Heart

How could a forty-something who exercises regularly, doesn't smoke, and has no symptoms of illness, be so close to "drop[ping] dead within five years"? To use a four-letter word, diet. Weir admitted to eating lots of vegetables, but also lots of cheese, meat, and beer. His diet was high in saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium. Although everyone needs some fat in their diet to live, eating saturated fat raises the blood's cholesterol levels. Trans fats (or trans-fatty acids) are found in small amounts in meat and dairy, but the majority of trans fats consumed now comes from hydrogenated plant oils added to processed foods to increase shelf life. Trans fats raise "bad" or LDL cholesterol and lowers "good" or HDL cholesterol, thus increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke, not to mention type 2 diabetes. A diet overrun with sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which makes one more likely to develop heart disease and stroke as well. Put them all together, and you have a recipe for a less than healthy heart.

It's What's Inside that Counts 

It's a common misconception to think that if we exercise, don't go over our recommended caloric limit, and sneak a fruit or veggie in here and there, that we're immune to serious illnesses-- but that's simply not the case. Diet goes hand in hand with exercise, and the kinds of foods we put into our bodies matter. Our diets need to be filled, not sprinkled, with nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. The AHA recommends at least 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day, 3 ounces of fiber-rich whole grains a day, 3.5 ounces of oily fish a week, and 4 servings of nuts, legumes, and seeds a week. It also recommends no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day, 2 servings or fewer of processed meats per week, and that saturated fat makes up less than 7% of your total energy intake.

"Life's Simple 7"

The AHA's new national diet goal is "to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent while reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent by the year 2020." Whether or not you think that's a lofty goal, it consists of making small lifestyle changes that will lead to longer lives, what they've called "Life's Simple 7":  

  1. don’t smoke;
  2. maintain a healthy weight;
  3. engage in regular physical activity;
  4. eat a healthy diet;
  5. manage blood pressure;
  6. take charge of cholesterol; and
  7. keep blood sugar, or glucose, at healthy levels.

So, this Valentine's Day, it's okay to buy your sweetie chocolate covered cherries and indulge in a calorie-busting dinner and dessert at the nearby Italian restaurant, but as your love grows, learn to share healthy fare daily and go for romantic walks. That way, there'll be many more Valentine's Days to look forward to in the years to come.

Your thoughts...

What foods are hard to replace in your diet despite their being bad for your heart?


Life's Simple 7 should really be Life's Simple 8; make sure you don't inherit bad genetics.  My caridiologist says I live as healthy as anyone can but he just placed stent number 7 in me in December.  I still choose to live healthy and fight this thing as well as I can.  There is one thing that is hard for me to delete from my diet and that's salt.  I have a hard time backing off of this one thing.  Since I have perfect blood pressure and cholesterol without medication, I always assumed that maybe this one indulgence doesn't effect me.  I haven't always lived a healthy lifestyle; you can catch my story in the Success Stories and see what I have changed.  I am sure my lifestyle change over the past few years has had a tremendouse positive impact on my health.

Re: advice to eat whole grains in a heart-healthy diet, I'm thinking reading Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes and Wheat Belly by William Davis is very much in order here.

Interesting using the AHA as a trusted source of nuitrition.Laughing It wasn't that long ago before their "new" food pyramid that they advocated white bread, lean (HaHa) lunch meats, sugar, lean (HaHa) red meat, mashed potato's and boiled vegatables. They have been so far behind the curve they thought the road was straight. Many hospitals still serve horrible menu's not only for patients but their own cafateria. I remember going into a large hospital to see my Aunt who was taken in for her blood-sugar flying out of control. Her dinner consisted of 2 small white bread rolls, a serving of mashed potato's, corn and some kind of processed mystery meat. Thank God she had the sense not to eat the bread and mashed potato's. Oh.. and for dessert she had tapioca pudding. Nothing like some extra carbs to finish up the meal. Good thing her meal was designed by the hospital's "Registered Dietician". I think the AHA has been a driving force in years past to miss-educating the general public. Thank God for a healthy living and lifestyle presence that has emerged to a critical mass in the last 10 years in this Country to start making the turn and back on the road to health. The Hospitals and Public have a long way to go but with the help of the likes of Calorie Count, Real Age and Dr Oz .... more people are being reached. Listen to them.. not the AHA.

2012 Brought me a new sense of going healthy.  I now read labels, no more hydrogenated oils, no more processed foods, no refined sugars (I use honey &/or Stevia) and hardest of all for me, no more gluten. I also gave up coffee and the creamers I LOVED once I read the ingredient list.

It's a HUGE adjustment but heart disease runs in the family.  My father died from complications of a massive heart attack at 51, Mom died from a massive heart attack at 63.  I'm 49 and have a teen that really needs a mom, so I am changing, each and every day. 

I am hoping maybe it's not too late. I don't drink or smoke and do exercise, however, I'm thankful that we are learning more about healthy choices. 

This article reminded me about Jim Fixx:

He became one the greatest runners of his time. He could run marathons under four hours. He wrote the book called The Complete Book Of Running.

Though he became the biggest advocate for running, he wasn’t always a runner. He used to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day up until the age of 35 when he started running. He would eat whatever he wanted including many burgers and shakes. 

Then he started running. While he did quit smoking, he didn’t understand the importance diet had in developing optimum health. He continued to eat his high fat diet. He just didn’t worry about eating healthy.

Unfortunately, at the age of only 52, he was found dead one day at the side of the road in Vermont. All he was wearing was his running shorts and running shoes. He had a massive heart attack.

His major arteries were severely clogged. He was the greatest spokesperson on the benefits on running, but completely ignored what a healthy diet can also do. Exercise is a great means of becoming physically fit, but it does not compensate for poor eating habits. 

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Would be interesting to know about Bill Weir (and Jim Fixx's) intake of high glycemic foods. I think I would advocate Life's Simple Three:

1. Don't smoke.

2. Minimize/eliminate grains, sugars and high glycemic loads, as well as trans fats and things you can't pronounce.

3. Maximize fun, joy and love.


I have been struggling with my diet ever since I can remember. I've researched holistic lifestyles, read book after book on nutrition, eat organic when I can, and was a vegetarian for over 10 years. What I've come to realize is that all these diets focus on extremes. They all want to completely eliminate one thing or another from your diet. What they fail to understand is that everything we eat has an effect on our bodies. Even saturated fats have beneficial properties at times. The problems that arise most often from our diets are due to an imbalance. We need many fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains on a daily basis. We also need fish and red meat in moderation for the vitamins and minerals they provide that we can't get  through vegetation only. Even saturated fats can provide chemicals that will boost our moods and enhance cellular construction as well as protect the body from harmful microbes.  The problems arize when the balance of fats and other nutrients becomes skewed. 

The individual is also a major part to dietary planning. Each person has their own balance that is needed for their body and their daily activities. What is healthy for one person is not necessarily true for someone else. Genetics, lifestyle, and environment all play a significant role in proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. Many times the diet is healthy, but the lifestyle is not and it throws the nutrients off for weeks. 

I believe the author was attempting to encourage a philosophy of balance when considering what to eat. Sure, eat the V-Day chocolates, but balance it out with more veggies and fiber later on in the week. Anything can be healthy in the right proportions.  

I agree that balance is good but we are still getting misinformation regarding grains.  Reading Why we get fat and what to do about it has changed my life and my weight.  Stop taking the CDC guidlines as being fact and go and research for yourself.

Great article.  This is something we all should be mindful of.

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I don't think saturated fat is bad, because over centuries humans thrived on fatty meats...  We didn't get big brains eating only nuts and leaves... to my knowledge, anyway

avoid oil in food... always prefer healthy food.... and go for walk daily morning and evening..

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I am so thankful for websites such as  I am a heart patient and it helps me keep on track.  When I falter, it does not belittle.  It allows me to do better the next day.  Everyday is an effort to maintain my health.  I have decided that this is my life...I must work at it everyday.

I can see a lot of good ides, but also a lot of misconceptions about food and diet. The point is that there is noting wrong in eating grains, read meat ... or even fats and sugar. The question is you have a balanced died (not all fats are bad / a bit of sugar every one in a while won't give you a hart atack) or not.

I also agree with those who say that you can not go to the exterms. It is a thousind times better to be balanced in your lifestile than to have a perfect diet 1 month per year and than to go wilde ... just remember that no matter how motivated you are, you will crave for a suggary snack every one in a while, and there is nothing to be ashamed of. Just be sure it does not become a habit.

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