What most doctors won’t tell you about heart disease

February is Heart Health Month. And that means you’re about to be barraged with information about all things heart – all month long. You’ll hear facts that might scare you, like statistics showing that heart disease remains the number one cause of death for both men and women. Or that if you suffer from high cholesterol, diabetes or high blood pressure, you’re very likely to be diagnosed with heart disease during your lifetime. All of those facts are true, but what you won’t hear touted nearly enough is that heart disease is not only preventable, it’s also REVERSIBLE.

That statement may shock you, but it is true. Indeed, the knowledge that we can reverse artery blockages is not new – it’s just that most physicians consider the lifestyle changes required to be so extreme, they don’t even bother to discuss them with their patients.

It all starts with diet. Yes, the power of food.  Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn have both demonstrated significant reversal of blockages in heart arteries and, more importantly, dramatic changes in the course of coronary artery disease — by changing what their patients ate. Yes, their programs are based upon a whole food vegan eating plan, which is certainly different from the typical American diet.  But extreme? Compared to what? Bypass surgery?

The reversal studies were carried out in patients with advanced heart disease. But that doesn’t mean all of us couldn’t benefit from incorporating more plant-based foods in our diet. Truthfully, it really is as simple as it sounds: eat more beans, greens, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – and eat less of processed, sugary, and fatty foods, especially if that fat comes from animal sources. The best part? You will feel better – almost immediately – and will also be rewarded with improvements in your cholesterol, weight, blood sugar and blood pressure – significantly decreasing your risk of developing heart disease in the first place.

You don’t have to become an all-out vegan to see results.  Even small sustained changes can yield health benefits over time.  For example, switching out two less healthful choices for plant-based foods rich in whole food fiber, antioxidants, plant sterols and omega 3 fatty acids can yield significant positive, medication level changes in cholesterol profiles in just 30 days.

Not ready to commit to two changes?  Even just adding an apple to your day can improve your health trajectory. Adding an apple a day might not seem like a big deal unless you consider that this translates into adding 3 BUSHELS of apples to your diet over the course of a year. That’s a lot of fiber and micronutrients you just ingested. And if that apple is in exchange for your usual doughnut, the health benefits are exponential.

There’s no question heart disease is a serious health concern.  It affects people of ALL ages and can impact you dramatically, suddenly and out of the blue. It takes the lives of over 600,000 Americans every year.  And we’re not winning the war against this killer and disabler. Recent trends show the opposite with troubling increases in heart attack and stroke rates in younger and younger individuals.

But we all have the power to stop becoming statistics. We just have to harness it.  For prevention and reversal of our number one killer.

Food matters.

Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC, is a cardiologist and founder of Preventive Cardiology Consultants in Minneapolis. She is also the founder and chief medical officer of Step One Foods, a company dedicated to helping patients minimize their dependence on medications through strategic dietary changes.

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