Lifestyle

Heart health awareness has a long way to go | Gustafson

Every February, the American Heart Association (AHA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health organizations remind the public to pay more attention to the issue of heart health – and for good reason.

Heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, ahead of cancer and respiratory diseases.

Well over a half-million Americans die every year from heart problems, according to data collected by the CDC. Poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, stress and sleep disorders are among the contributing factors. Smoking and alcohol/drug abuse also play a role.

The "Standard American Diet" (SAD), also known as the "Western Diet," is notorious for its preferences for meat products and processed foods, which often contain high amounts of sugar, salt and refined grains. There is mounting evidence that the changing dietary trends of the past few decades, not only in America but also increasingly around the world, are responsible for the growing prevalence of heart disease.

Diet changes are among the first steps experts recommend for better heart health. A recent study from Great Britain showed that participants who adhered to a strictly vegetarian diet were less at risk of developing heart disease than their non-vegetarian counterparts. Lower levels of dietary cholesterol, which is only present in animal food products, was one likely reason, as was a smaller intake of saturated fat and sodium. Especially sodium, often added in high doses to processed foods, is believed to contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease.

No red meat is better

While the researchers did not investigate other factors than diet that could have benefitted the vegetarians, they are confident that the abstinence from meat, in particular red meat, has made the difference.

"The effect is probably at least partly due to the lack of red meat – especially meat high in saturated fat – in vegetarian diets," said Dr. Francesca Crowe, professor of nutritional epidemiology at Oxford University, England, who led the study. "The extra fruits and vegetables and higher fiber in a non-meat diet could also play a role," she added.

Besides diet, insufficient physical activity is most often named as a cause of heart disease. In fact, studies have found that sedentary behavior can be as harmful as smoking. If nothing else, there is at least a "statistically significant association between a lack of exercise and coronary heart disease," said Dr. Carl Caspersen, a researcher at the CDC.

None of these findings are surprising. We have long known that heart disease is a mainly lifestyle-related illness, as is diabetes. The good news is that we are not helpless in the fight against health problems that are, at least in part, of our own making.

Raising awareness is an important first step, but it can't stop there. Showing sympathy and expressing support for heart patients by wearing red clothing is laudable, and I applaud all those who take up the cause. But we also have to turn our insights into action through education, policy changes and regulations.

Many Americans still know too little about the potentially catastrophic consequences their diet and lifestyle choices can have for their health and what they can do differently to avoid further damage. As with most bad things in life, we tend to believe that they only happen to others – until they happen to us. When it comes to the heart, it may then be too late.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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