You may have heard that February is American Heart Month. (Hint: It’s why half your coworkers are wearing red today.) Heart disease—a fairly broad term that encompasses the many health problems related to plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries—is the number one cause of death among women and men in the United States. An estimated 600,000 people die each year from the disease.
Startled? You should be. But what’s even more startling to me is the fact that, in large part, this disease is preventable—and yet there are so many people who are doing nothing to prevent it.
Over the past fifteen-plus years, I have earned two nutrition degrees, learned the importance of dietary restrictions for the management of disease, and worked in several hospitals as a dietitian. I have counseled countless clients, prescribed many a heart-healthy diet and, well, there are times I feel defeated.
I feel defeated by the process because there is something very wrong with the way we treat disease in this country. And it is exactly that: We treat disease instead of preventing disease.
It actually scares me when I think about the number of times I have heard a client say, “I have high cholesterol, but I control it with medications.” I understand the importance of medications in the treatment of disease, especially considering the uncontrollable risk factors of heart disease, including age and family history. And hear me loud and clear: I am not recommending you stop taking your medications (though, with lifestyle changes, you may be able to).
But what I don't understand is when a person uses medications to control her disease without making lifestyle changes that could eliminate certain risk factors—risk factors that are in her power to change. I'm talking about smoking, poor diet, lack of physical activity, obesity, and uncontrolled diabetes, to name a few. Rehabbing these habits and reining in these conditions could possibly reverse her disease and decrease or eliminate her need for medications.
Let’s discuss what living a healthy lifestyle involves. A “heart healthy” diet is usually prescribed, like medication, to a patient with heart disease (as it should be). Sadly, the diet—one of those controllable risk factors—is rarely taken as seriously as the medications prescribed. Wouldn’t it be great if we could prescribe healthy, balanced meals, three times a day, knowing that the prescription would be followed with the diligence of taking medications? The problem with prescribed dietary restrictions is that, well, they feel like restrictions. They feel like a punishment for having high cholesterol or high blood pressure. They feel like a sentence to a life of deprivation because you have a disease.
In reality, they are far from a punishment. They are a healthy diet. We need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and take control.
These dietary restrictions, which include lowering the total fat, sodium and added sugars in our diet, are the recommendations we should all, regardless of our health history or lack thereof, be adhering to every day. Eating more vegetables, more whole grains and less refined, processed food, less animal products and more plant based whole foods, well, they are not restrictions either. They are, in sum total, healthy eating habits. When used in combination with exercise, smoking cessation and stress reduction, you have yourself a healthy lifestyle that has the potential to prevent disease and possibly reverse those diseases that you already have.
Sure, it is easier to take a pill and call it a day. But who ever said easier was better? This February, we need to take responsibility for ourselves and the lifestyle choices we make. We need to stop making excuses. We need to stop looking for the quick fix—the band-aid—and rid ourselves of the risk factors we can control. Ditch the word diet and adopt a healthy lifestyle. Take control of your own health because no one can do it for you.
Katie Cavuto MS, RD is a dietitian, chef and the owner of Healthy Bites, which offers culinary and nutrition services including a local meal delivery service. She’s the dietitian to the Phillies, a blogger for the Food Network and Philly.com, and can be seen regularly on stations like FOX and ABC as an expert in her field. She was most recently seen in the January issue of Fitness magazine and doing cooking segment on the nationally syndicated “Better Show.”