Illustration Showing Human Heart

by Caitlin Rose

“Learn and Live.”

That’s the motto of the American Heart Association (AHA), which might strike you as innocuous at first, until you consider the alternative. Most of us are used to the age-old saying “Live and learn,” but when you’re providing care to people with preventable chronic disease, you realize very quickly that we don’t have that luxury indefinitely.

In the next 20 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projects that heart disease deaths will increase sharply.1 In that same time, the AHA estimates that the percentage of the US population living with heart disease will reach over 40%.2 According to a recent estimate by the AHA, the cost of treating this preventable disease will skyrocket from $171 billion to $275 billion.3

These figures make it clear that if we want to keep living, and living well, we need to start learning how to protect our health.

What is the solution?

Thankfully, it’s possible to live well while pursuing heart health. Studies by Dr. Dean Ornish, a leading researcher in the field, found that many patients can avoid major surgery and lessen their medication by making changes to their diet and lifestyle. A low-fat, plant-based diet, regular exercise and stress-reducing activities like meditation have all been found to reduce the risk of heart disease.4, 5

Many people may see adopting a new diet and exercise regimen as something they have to force themselves to do. However, the most effective changes are those that are done step-by-step and gradually integrated into a person’s regular routine until they become a habit. These changes can benefit everyone, at every stage of life, no matter your age or health status.

Protect children by making changes now

Coronary heart disease is not an inevitable consequence of aging, as was once thought. Sixty years ago, scientists began to discover that arterial damage may begin in childhood and progress throughout a person’s life. Still, many people think of heart disease as an old person’s illness. In “Prevent a Second Heart Attack,” author Janet Brill, PhD, confirms that heart disease is largely caused by lifestyle factors that begin in childhood.

She goes on to explain that “A toxic mix of calorie overload, especially of processed foods high in damaging fats, sugars, and salt, coupled with inactivity instigates the long, slow process of arterial damage that results in a heart attack.”6

Experts are increasingly beginning to understand the importance of teaching heart-healthy behaviors to children. While attempts to make school lunches healthier may have an impact, ultimately the most significant way to positively affect your child’s health is by making changes at home.

Why adopt a plant-based diet?

The most important step you can take to protect the health of your heart and your family’s hearts is to adopt a low-fat, plant-based diet. A meat-based diet contains an overabundance of saturated fats and cholesterol that contribute to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, that leads to a heart attack. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains on the other hand are naturally low-fat, low-calorie foods that are rich in phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Because your body gets the nutrients it needs and keeps you feeling full longer due to the fiber, plant foods may help control weight and blood pressure, both risk factors for heart disease.7 The fiber in plant foods also helps to carry cholesterol out of your body, instead of into your bloodstream.

Numerous studies have compared life-long vegetarians in the Seventh Day Adventist community to control groups eating a modern Western diet. Overwhelmingly, the results have indicated that diets containing more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity, which are all risk factors for heart disease.8

Most recently, a study by the Loma Linda School of Public Health found that vegetarians are 36% less likely to develop heart problems, diabetes or stroke compared to meat eaters.9 The study included participants across the dietary spectrum, from people who ate meat frequently, to people who ate meat occasionally, and people who abstained from meat completely. They found that the closer a person was to being vegetarian, the lower their health risk became.

Learn and Live

The more you experiment with healthy, whole food recipes like those found on Down to Earth’s website (www.downtoearth.org/recipes), the more you’ll experience how tasty a plant-based diet can be. The more you engage in preparing and eating healthy meals with your loved ones, the more you’ll appreciate their health and well being. The more you involve yourself with outdoor activities, the more you’ll discover the joy of being surrounded by life on all sides.

“Learn and live” begins to take on another, deeper meaning. As we learn new strategies for health, we not only increase our longevity, but we also increase the fullness and richness of our life experience. We may be motivated at first by the desire to learn and survive, but as our habits change and we broaden our experience, we may find that, by learning, we have begun to truly live.

Footnotes: 
  1. Gerberding, Julie, and Elias Zerhouni. United States. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.Public Health Action Plan to Prevent Heart Disease and Stroke. Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010. Web.
  2. Heidenreich, Paul, Justin Trogdon, Olga Khavjou, et al. "Forecasting the Future of Cardiovascular Disease in the United States." Circulation. 123. (2011): 933-944. Web. 6 Jan. 2012.
  3. ibid
  4. Ornish, Dean, Larry Scherwitz, James Billings, et al. "Intensive Lifestyle Changes for Reversal of Coronary Heart Disease." JAMA. 280.23 (1998): 2001-2007. Web. 6 Jan. 2012.
  5. Ornish, Dean, Shirley Brown, Larry Scherwitz, et al. "Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease?." Lancet. 336.8708 (1990): 129-133. Web. 6 Jan. 2012.
  6. Brill, Janet. Prevent a Second Heart Attack: 8 Foods, 8 Weeks to Reverse Heart Disease. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2011. Print.
  7. "Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations." . American Heart Association, 2012. Web. 6 Jan 2012.
  8. Key, Timothy, Margaret Thorogood, et al. "Dietary habits and mortality in 11,000 vegetarians and health conscious people: results of a 17 year follow up." British Medical Journal. 313. (1996): 775-9. Web. 6 Jan. 2012.
  9. Rizzo, Nico, Joan Sabate, Karen Jaceldo-Siegl, and Gary Fraser. "Vegetarian Dietary Patterns Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Metabolic Syndrome: The Adventist Health Study 2."Diabetes Care. 34.5 (2011): 1225-1227. Web. 6 Jan. 2012. Print.