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Why Bill Clinton's heart scare should make us think about our own health

By Nicci Micco, February 12, 2010 - 12:06pm

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Why Bill Clinton's heart scare should make us think about our own health

When I read this week that former President Bill Clinton had two stents inserted into a clogged coronary artery, I thought of my own family. I’ve been focused on eating a heart-healthy diet for more than 20 years and I’m only 34. Why? When I was in junior high my dad was diagnosed with high cholesterol and Mom announced we were going to start eating more heart-healthy meals. My mom, who’d lost her dad—my Grandpa Bill—to a massive stroke at 62 (after he’d suffered several heart attacks, strokes and open-heart surgeries) was serious about helping our family make important lifestyle changes that beget healthier hearts

We’d be having more chicken and fish and fewer servings of fatty meat. She’d be serving more vegetables and fewer French fries. Kind of like how Mr. Clinton, who used to indulge in fast food and donuts, revamped his diet.

Lucky for us, Mom made sure to cook heart-healthy meals that were still delicious. None of us felt deprived and my dad was able to lose weight. You can reduce your risk of heart disease, too, by doing what we did, which was to…

1. Cut back on “bad” fats. Eating lean proteins, such as chicken, fish and beans, in place of fattier meats, you’ll limit saturated fats, which can elevate “bad” LDL cholesterol, leading to plaque buildup in arteries. Other tactics to reduce sat fat: replace butter with olive and canola oils; select nonfat or low-fat milk and yogurt in place of whole-milk versions; eat full-fat cheeses sparingly. And we now know that it’s just as important—and perhaps more important—to also avoid trans fats, which also increase LDL cholesterol. Do this by skipping foods that contain “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil” in their ingredient lists. (Big culprits: packaged snacks, crackers, bakery goods and some margarines.) Learn more about Good Fats, Bad Fats.

2. Eat lots of fiber. Shoot for at least 25 grams a day. Studies link a high-fiber diet with a lower risk of heart disease. Fill up on oats, beans and citrus fruits, like oranges, which provide the soluble fiber that helps reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. (Sick of boring old oatmeal? Find fresh ideas for oats.) Whole grains, such as brown rice and whole-wheat pasta, boost intake of total fiber (by way of insoluble fiber, which is also good for digestion) and can decrease levels of triglycerides, another “unhealthy” fat in the blood, as a diet rich in refined carbohydrates may stoke the body’s production of triglycerides.

3. Exercise! Keeping active is a great way to stay trim, which, by itself, reduces risk for heart disease—it also helps your heart in other ways: by lowering blood pressure and boosting “good” HDL cholesterol for example. Schedule in at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise (e.g., brisk walking) each day.

4. Make friends with your doctor. Eating well and exercise can go a long way in reducing your risk for heart disease but, sadly, you can’t always assume that just because your body weight, exercise habits and diet are healthy that your blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels are too. (Eating to control high blood pressure? Get help here.) Sometimes we end up with genes that predispose us to heart disease. (Given my family history, I’m assuming that I may.) So it’s important to talk with your health-care provider about the these tests. If you have a strong family history of heart disease, you might talk with your doctor about additional testing options.

TAGS: Nicci Micco, Health Blog

Nicci Micco
Nicci Micco is co-author of EatingWell 500-Calorie Dinners. She has a master's degree in nutrition and food sciences, with a focus in weight management.

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