Heart Health: Frequently Asked Questions

Answers to the 11 most common heart health questions.

Doctors get a lot of questions — millions of them. But while the words used to ask the questions are almost always different, the underlying concerns don’t change very much from person to person or year to year. With this in mind, we decided to provide answers to the 11 most common questions people ask regarding heart health. We hope you find a little extra help and wisdom among them.

Q: I hate all those good-for-you foods. What should I do?

A: What makes unhealthy food so tasty — and unhealthy — is excessive salt, sugar, or fat. For example, when you eat a potato chip or french fry, it’s not the potato that delights your taste buds, it’s the oil and salt. The good news: Over time, you can train yourself to be less needy for these flavors. When you do, you’ll discover that “good for you” foods often taste far more wonderful than simple but salty or sugary junk foods.

Start by making the easiest, smallest changes. Do you have a cola and a doughnut to start the day? Make one change, such as postponing the cola until lunch and replacing it with chocolate milk, or having the cola but switching from a doughnut to a fruity muffin. Similarly, make one healthy swap at lunch — switch from mayonnaise to mustard on your sandwich or add an apple to the meal, for example. Then do the same at dinner. Your goal is to make small, acceptable adjustments to your diet and stick with them. After they become second nature, add a few more. Along the way, pull back a little from the saltshaker, the butter, and the sugary drinks. In time, you’ll be less reliant on salty, sugary, fatty flavors and more satisfied with fresher, healthier foods.

Q: I cook for the whole family, and they refuse to change what they’re eating. How can I stay on track?

A: Parents often put their family’s interests before their own, but when it comes to health, that’s a big mistake. You have an obligation to look after yourself, to tend to your health and happiness, so don’t let family pressures defeat you. Try cooking your healthy favorites in big batches, then freeze one-portion servings. Microwave your meal while you cook for the gang. Or simply put a salad with a choice of dressings, an extra veggie, and cut-up fruit on the table with the meal. You’ll get to fill up on the healthy stuff plus a moderate portion of the main dish, and your family is likely to eat healthier without even realizing it. Another strategy: Swap ingredients. Replace some or all of the butter in recipes with canola or olive oil; use low-fat, low-sodium cheese (and less of it); sneak more veggies into casseroles, soups, and sauces; and cook lower-fat cuts of meat.

Q: What if I’ve eaten the wrong foods, and bad foods, all my life? Is the damage done?

A: One of the greatest rewards of healthy eating is an immediate upgrade in your body’s health. Research shows that eating just one healthy meal cuts inflammation, lowers the amount of dangerous fats in your bloodstream, reduces free radical damage, and improves the way your arteries function. The bottom line: It’s never, ever, ever too late to reap the benefits of a heart-smart eating plan.

Q: I hate seafood. I love beef. That’s not going to change — ever. Am I doomed?

A: Not at all. A healthy, 3- to 4-ounce portion of lean beef is good for you because it’s packed with vitamins B6 and B12, both of which help control levels of homocysteine, a substance linked to heart risk. And beef today has significantly less artery-clogging saturated fat than in the past. Just be sure to look for low-fat cuts, such as bottom round, eye round, top round, round tip, top sirloin, top loin, or tenderloin.

True, you’re missing out on the amazing heart benefits provided by the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, so be sure to take fish-oil supplements, choose walnuts when you’re snacking on nuts, try a sprinkle of ground flaxseed (another source of omega-3s) on your cereal, and consider shopping around in health food stores for grass-fed beef, which actually contains a smidgen of omega-3s. Another source might be a local farm where beef cattle are grass fed. To find one near you, check out the state-by-state locater service at www.eatwild.com. It lists providers by province in Canada, too.

Q: Whenever I try to eat healthy, I end up throwing away lots of uneaten vegetables and fruits that have gone bad. Any suggestions?

A: That happens to us, too. It’s easy to grab lots of yummy fruits and veggies in the store, then run out of time or opportunities to eat ’em up before the slime and rot set in. Yuck! And what a waste of money! Try these four solutions.
1. Buy frozen veggies and frozen or canned fruit in unsweetened juice. They won’t go bad on you.
2. Try making fresh fruits and veggies more user-friendly. Take an apple and a bag of baby carrots to work, cut up that melon and keep it in the fridge in a covered container, and put cut-up raw veggies on the table before dinner.
3. Calculate your vegetable and fruit needs for the week and shop for just that amount. That may sound obvious, but many produce shoppers buy based on what looks good at the market that particular day, without a specific use in mind. That inevitably leads to overshopping (or, for those without a vegetable habit, undershopping).
4. Make soup each weekend with whatever produce hasn’t been used during the week. Throw in a can of beans, lots of vegetables, plenty of herbs, and, if appropriate, leftovers from the week, and you’ll have an improvised minestrone soup that will feed you and the family all weekend.

Q: My doctor believes strongly that medicine is the best treatment for my high blood pressure. He doesn’t embrace all these alternative healing ideas. Why shouldn’t I believe him?

A: Look at the “alternative versus conventional healing” issue from a new perspective even your doctor can embrace: The best approach is alternative plus conventional healing (if you need it). That means using a healthy diet, exercise, and safe supplements as the basis of your personal health care strategy. If your blood pressure (or cholesterol, triglycerides, or blood sugar) stays above normal despite lifestyle changes, be happy that medical science has treatments to help you. The two approaches work together, not in opposition.

If your blood pressure is very high, your doc may not feel comfortable suggesting that you stop your meds to give lifestyle changes a try. That makes sense, since sudden blood pressure spikes can be dangerous. Ask the doctor how the two of you can work together to monitor your blood pressure while you make changes, so you can see if your drug doses can be lowered. This may mean more frequent trips to the doc’s office or buying and learning to use a home blood pressure monitor. Good luck!

Q: Ever since I found out I have high cholesterol, fear has been gnawing at me. I’m walking around worried that I could have a heart attack at any moment. What can I do?

A: First, understand that many people with high cholesterol never have heart attacks. Your risk is higher, but you can definitely avoid having one. The best way to manage your fears is with facts. Ask your doctor about an exercise stress test or a heart scan to assess whether you have any blockages forming in your coronary arteries. If you do, you may need medicine or surgery to reduce them and cut your heart risk fast. But if you don’t, which is the likelier scenario, you’ll have the evidence you need to relax a little.

Then discuss the pros and cons of taking a cholesterol-lowering statin drug. Also discuss creating treatment goals. Having specific, numerical health targets to work toward can also help make heart health a less intimidating, more achievable goal. Finally, ask your doctor how often your cholesterol needs to be rechecked to be sure it’s dropping into a healthy range and staying there. (You’ll also need liver-function tests if you take a statin.)

Even if you’re taking cholesterol-lowering medication, create a healthy diet and exercise program for yourself, using this book as your basis. Some of your fears will dissipate when you start living healthier, and more will go away as you start experiencing the benefits of greater energy, fewer colds, better sleep, and lower weight.

Q: I loathe exercise. How can I motivate myself to get moving?

A: If you’re like most exercise haters, what you loathe is probably what you remember from gym class or the last health club you visited — the sweaty clothes, awkward moves, and overall embarrassment. The “exercise” recommended in the 30-Minutes-A-Day Plan, which is the same exercise that can cut your heart disease risk in half, doesn’t involve tube socks, sweatbands, or jumping up and down. You don’t even have to change out of your normal work or casual clothes. Simply go out the door and walk around your building or neighborhood. No huffing, puffing, or discomfort is required. Enjoy your walks as a chance to catch some fresh air and grab a mental pick-me-up. When you stop thinking of exercise as suffering and punishment, you’ll soon find yourself enjoying the chance to stretch your legs and get your blood moving, which is all exercise really is.

Q: My life is so hectic, I don’t feel that I can handle any more responsibility. How can I change my eating, exercise, and lifestyle habits without adding even more stress?

A: Slow down and take it one small step at a time. The beauty of this plan is that it’s designed to reduce the stress in your life. Every little change you make reduces your risk, so you don’t have to adopt all of our advice overnight to have a healthier heart. You will be surprised, though, at how easily these tips fit into your routine and become a normal way of life.

Q: I smoke. Is it worth making any other changes if I can’t quit?

A: Absolutely. Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease. In fact, it’s probably the biggest, but there are eight other lifestyle factors — including stress, obesity, sedentary living, and eating too few fruits and vegetables — that have been pinned to causing heart attacks and that you can do something about right now even if you can’t break the tobacco habit. What’s more, once you start making healthy lifestyle changes, such as eating fresh foods and walking in the fresh air, you’ll probably find it easier to leave cigarettes behind.

Q: If I already have heart disease, won’t exercise raise my risk for a heart attack?

A: It’s true that if you’re at high risk for heart attack, you should talk to your doctor before engaging in any vigorous exercise. You should also avoid strenuous activity and lifting heavy weights (it’s especially risky to hold your breath during weightlifting or other exertion). But simply walking down the block and participating in some light weightlifting will help strengthen your heart, so your risk will decrease. If you feel nervous about exercise, by all means talk to your doctor, who can help you find the level of physical activity that’s right for you.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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