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10 lifestyle changes to improve your heart health

As a board certified cardiologist, one of the major themes that I explore is the incredible importance of making simple lifestyle changes to get off prescription medications. For example, doctors often prescribe statins to lower cholesterol, but I have found that there are often other ways to accomplish this goal, and will share some of these ways with you in the months to come.

What are some active steps that you can take to make you and your heart healthier? Here is a countdown of the top 10 things you can do yourself to improve your heart health in 2015.

As a board certified cardiologist with Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology, one of the major themes that I explore is the incredible importance of making simple lifestyle changes to get off prescription medications. For example, doctors often prescribe statins (drugs like Lipitor, Crestor, and Zocor) to lower cholesterol, but I have found that there are often other ways to accomplish this goal, and will share some of these ways with you in the months to come.

As the founder and Medical Director of the Healthy Change of Heart Program, I have done research looking into how to prevent heart disease through the use of supplements and lifestyle changes to lower cholesterol. The results of this research have been published in major medical journals including the Mayo Clinic, Annals of Internal Medicine and The American Heart Journal.

Believe it or not, cardiologists do not learn about nutrition in medical school, and no one can really be an expert on everything (except Dr Oz, who seems to find a new product to both sell and be an expert on almost every week).  That's why, over the 17 years of doing this program, I have worked closely with Patti Morris, who is a registered dietitian and nutritionist.  She has collaborated with me on everything that you will be reading, especially the nutritional information that I will bring up.

So, let's get started.

#10:  Start an exercise program.  Here is a something to think about when you start exercising… When you exercise, you improve the blood supply to your heart by forming something called collateral circulation. During exercise, you can actually begin growing new blood vessels in the arteries of your heart that supply blood to your heart muscle. For some people this can act like an "auto" bypass without surgery or a stent!

#9:  If you have excess weight, lose it. Extra weight has a huge impact on your health. Obesity increases an individual's risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and gallstones. High blood pressure is six times more common in people who are overweight or obese than in those who are lean, which translates to a 24 percent increase in stroke risk.

#8: Think about a plan to help you get off prescription medication. We often talk about personal responsibility, and stepping up and doing the right thing, but we usually do not frame that scenario in terms of our own health. By making the kind of lifestyle changes that we talk about here (losing weight, exercising), you are on the road to taking charge of your own health.  If you are able to do this, you might be able to get off some of your medications, specifically for high cholesterol and diabetes.

For example, a recent trial in the journal Hypertension suggests that dietary beetroot juice with nitrates may be an alternative blood pressure treatment.  High blood pressure is a serious problem that often requires prescription medication, so it is nice to see some research looking at alternatives.

My main focus in research has been in the use of supplements. The use of red yeast rice for high cholesterol along with omega 3 fatty acids is a great way to take charge of your own destiny, and has been proven to work in published studies. Please note: This approach is meant for people who are trying to prevent heart disease and should not be taken in conjunction with a statin. If you already have heart disease (if you have had a heart attack, bypass surgery, or a stent), then the medical evidence that you should stay on a statin is overwhelming, and I strongly urge you to stay on this medication if possible.

#7: Do a food inventory.  Open your freezer, refrigerator, pantry and every cabinet in your home where you store food. Now take a good look at the type of food that you buy. If your house is filled with potato chips, frozen pizzas, chocolate and cookies, how can you expect yourself to "resist" the foods that you absolutely love?  Instead, pack up the junk.  Donate the unwanted items to a shelter or an always-hungry neighborhood kid. Getting these foods out of your immediate reach will help when you are experiencing late night cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods.

#6. Learn how to talk to your doctor.  Review each of your medications with your doctor.  Know what each medication is for and what it's supposed to be doing for you. If you are on more than 4 or 5, know what interactions are possible. Next time you see your doctor, try saying "This year, I am committed to losing weight, decreasing the stress in my life, and making changes. Can I have your approval to try a new approach to my medication?" Your doctor hopefully will embrace this approach. It is possible s/he may ask you to show some results first, before they sign off on the changes and that's ok.

#5:  Make a commitment to food preparation every weekend.  Picture yourself arriving home from work at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday night. You walk into the house, tired and hungry and you think to yourself, "What are we going to have for dinner?"  A lack of preparation leads to poor food choices.  If you spent an hour or two on the weekend, planning and preparing your meals, you could have a healthy dinner ready and on the table in 30 minutes.

Here are some ideas for weekend food prep:

  1. Roast a whole chicken or two and remove the meat to use that as a base for a weeknight dinner.

  2. Cut and chop vegetables so that they are in baggies in the refrigerator. Simply steam them as you prepare for dinner and they are ready to go.

  3. Make a big pot of a broth-based vegetable soup. You can have this as your entrée with a nice salad and some whole grain bread.

It is not a big surprise that you are going to be hungry at least three times a day. Be ready. Preparation is key. If your refrigerator is always filled with nutritious choices than that will be what you eat. Without preparation, you are a victim to whatever food is easily available.

#4: Know your numbers.  Know your cholesterol, Triglyceride level and HDL and LDL.  It is helpful to know what each one means and how to lower it.

  1. HDL is the good cholesterol that acts like the body's garbage man to discard the bad kinds of cholesterol and inflammation that will worsen heart disease.

  2. LDL is the bad kind of cholesterol, that worsens plaque and inflammation.

Remember that the absolute number is less important than the context of what your other concerns are. For example, your cholesterol becomes even more important if you have diabetes, high blood pressure or a family history of either.

#3. Learn how to deal with food cravings.  Let me first preface, a food craving is NOT hunger.  Someone may say that they crave carbs, but when you take a look at the foods that people say they crave the most, the foods contain a combination of fat and carbs like chocolate chip cookies, macaroni and cheese, candy bars, French fries, etc.

So, what do we do about food cravings? Give in – but find a healthier food substitution. If you are craving something salty, try popped chips, salted rice cakes or air-popped popcorn.  All three of these snacks are salty carbohydrates but they do not have the added fat or calories. If you are craving something sweet, try a Weight Watchers or Skinny Cow ice cream bar.

If you find that you cannot handle any snack because it leads to overeating, then use avoidance techniques – brush and floss your teeth after dinner to give your mouth that minty fresh taste so you don't want the sweet/salty taste anymore.  Or, think about your environment.  If you want to snack every evening while watching TV in the family room, change locations – watch TV in your bedroom. Keep trying different techniques until you find the one that works for you.

#2: Re-evaluate the fat content of your diet.  We want to incorporate heart-healthy fats into our diet because they can make you feel fuller.  Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are a very heart-healthy choice.  They can be found in fish such as salmon and tuna, avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil.

Trans fats are not good choices. Trans fats are made when an ordinary liquid oil is processed in a way to make it semi-solid or solid. When an ingredient list includes a fat that is partially hydrogenated, that is a trans fat. You will find these fats in margarine, baked goods, crackers and other processed foods. Foods that contain saturated fat such as bacon, steak, cheese and whole milk – are another bad choice, as they can raise your bad cholesterol.

#1: Remember, heart disease is reversible! It's a simple fact that many people do not realize — if you already have a heart problem or are looking to prevent one, making these changes can actually reverse the process that is going on inside your body. People often ask me if there is some kind of Drano available to clean out blockages that develop and lead to heart attacks.  There is by making the kind of changes that we are talking about here. Research has shown that you can reduce your risk of having a heart attack by 75 percent if you make lifestyle changes.

Dr. David Becker is a board certified cardiologist with Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology in Flourtown, Pa. and has been in practice for 25 years. In 1993, after extensive research, Dr. Becker launched Healthy Change of Heart™, an innovative 10-week program designed to reverse heart disease and improve quality of life through diet, exercise, and stress management. Since then, thousands of patients have participated in the program, achieving significant results in improving cardiac wellness.