Fighting heart disease one snack at a time

Fruits, such as blueberries, taste great and have a number of positive benefits over processed snacks. (WTOP/Ed Kelleher)

Paula Wolfson,

WASHINGTON – Heart disease is deadly. It is also, in most cases, preventable.

Gale Mates saved her life, in large part, by changing her diet. The Haymarket, Va. mom says she was munching uncontrollably, starting with “the embarrassing food that I was eating for breakfast, which was chips, cookies and a cherry Coke.”

Today, her wake-up meal is likely to be made up of fruit and whole grains. The fast food that her family lived on is a thing of the past.

So is her diabetes, and her high cholesterol and hypertension. She says the key was taking the change one step at a time, adding more produce and giving up sodas for lots of water.

Tanya Johnson, a dietitian at Washington Adventist Hospital, says many local moms are grabbing too much food on the run. She says the biggest mistake they make “is to focus on everybody else before they take care of themselves.”

She says heart healthy foods can be quick and tasty, even without all that fat, sugar and salt.

“A lot of time we think healthy equates to tasteless, and the reality is, healthy food doesn’t have to taste terrible,” she says.

“It’s human nature. We like the taste of sweet and we like the taste of fat … and fat does carry flavor,” she explains.

But blueberries “are healthy for us, and they taste great,” she says.

So do roasted vegetables, and all kinds of produce served in easy, but creative ways.

“Look for the least processed foods” when you grocery shop, slip in fruit and veggies as often as you can, and take it one step at a time, Johnson says.

“You know, it takes 21 days to make a new habit. And if you are trying something new it is going to take you a while before it is part of your life,” she says.

She emphasizes it is crucial to get the entire family involved, especially since risk factors for heart disease tend to be passed on from one generation to the next.

“If we are going to make diet or lifestyle changes of any kind, it really needs to be done as a family,” she says. “Not one individual in a family doing it, but everybody.”

What kind of a difference can diet make? Cardiologist Susan Bennett says if women were more vigilant about nutrition and exercise, the incidence of cardiovascular disease would drop by 80 percent.

Bennett, who is affiliated with Medstar/Washington Hospital Center, cites the classic example of Japan at the turn of the 20th century when the Japanese had no heart disease to speak of.

“Now, because of the advents of smoking and Western diet, heart disease rates in Japan are the same as they are in the U.S.,” she says.

“It’s clearly a function of the Western civilization, and the way we eat and how we eat, and how we eat fast food,” Bennett says. “So that puts it under our control.”

Editor’s Note: Throughout February, WTOP will be focusing on women’s heart health, with information on prevention, treatment and reasons for hope. We also will bring you the incredible stories of survivors from the region — a sisterhood of women celebrating a second chance at life with a commitment to help others.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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