Taxes may be inevitable, but, for you, dying of heart disease or stroke may not be. Let me tell you about the frustrations of meeting people who have an atherosclerotic time bomb waiting to go off in their body; a time bomb, which, in many people, can be de-fused with proper diet, exercise and lifestyle. A time bomb that people are usually either unaware of or uncaring about, but which is ticking away just the same. And let me tell you about how changing a few things in your life and having your blood cholesterol measured may be the keys to turning off or slowing down this time bomb.
Everyday at the Medical College of Georgia, seemingly healthy people come in for nutritional counseling; healthy on the outside, maybe; healthy on the inside, No! A typical person may be a 45 year old man with a family history of heart disease, diabetes or stroke. He may be 10-20 lbs or more overweight, a smoker, and may consume the typical American diet which is too high in calories, too high in fat, too high in sugar, too high in cholesterol, and too high in salt. You know that this person is walking down the road to heart disease, stroke, or adult-onset diabetes; the same path that his father, mother or aunt followed during their lives and which eventually lead to the complications or vascular disease.
You MUST know what your blood cholesterol value is, just as well as you know your own telephone number; more than that, you must start thinking about all your risk factors for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes...and change your diet and lifestyle, if you're in a high risk category.
Don't think that just because you're in good shape, you are immune from atherosclerosis. You'd be surprised at how many "in-shape" people end up in coronary intensive care units. This is because, although these people kept within a reasonable body weight, ate right, didn't smoke, and knew how to handle stress, they ignored two vitally important risk factors related to heart disease...they ignored their family history of heart disease, stroke or diabetes, and they ignored or didn't know their blood cholesterol values.
A healthy diet and lifestyle is a family affair. Neither atherosclerosis nor poor lifestyle is something that begins in adulthood. The true significance of this was discovered when young men killed in Korea were found, on autopsy, to have the early signs of atherosclerosis. Men 19 years of age! When did this insidious disease begin? At 18? At 17? The answer is clear. Diet and lifestyle are something that is learned in childhood, and diseases that nourish themselves on poor diet and lifestyle begin in childhood. Food and lifestyle are not merely things that you, as parents, provide for children; you provide them living patterns that can either serve them well in adulthood or dramatically decrease the quality of their adult lives. Having a stroke, heart attack or diabetes is no game. Ask anyone who has any one of these problems.
One important misconception people often have is that proper diet and healthy lifestyle, alone, can prevent or cure disease. Unfortunately, this is not true. However, there are several voluntary things that you can do to decrease your risk of getting certain diseases.
Many people are interested in doing something positive for their wellness, but they are not sure what to do. Cholesterol, polyunsaturated fatty acids, saturated fat, triglycerides, lecithin, fish oils...what do all these things mean? Which ones should you avoid? Which ones should you eat? There are a few simple rules that can make an important impact on your wellness. First of all, if you are overweight, it makes little sense to worry about taking fish oil supplements, vitamins, minerals, eating certain types of fat...you need to get back down to a reasonable body weight! I can't remember the number of times I have been asked by 50-60 year old, overweight men and women whether a certain nutritional supplement or food will decrease their risk of heart disease. The answer is clear; losing weight is much more important than any other factors.
Secondly, have your blood cholesterol measured. We want you to know your blood cholesterol value like you know your phone number. The higher your blood cholesterol value, the greater your risk for heart disease and stroke. For people over 25, we usually aim for a value of 200 (mg/dl) or lower. There is some evidence that lowering your blood cholesterol even below this value (to 180) might help reverse fat buildups already present on your arteries.
Third, watch the amount of animal fat and fried foods you are eating. No nutritionist will tell you not to eat red meat. We just want you to cut down on the amount of red meat in your diet and use lean cuts of meat that are lower in cholesterol. In addition, we want you to eat more chicken and fish and use vegetable oils that are high in unsaturated fat. Don't be fooled into thinking that any vegetable product is safe just because it is free of cholesterol. You need to read the label. Some vegetable products are even more saturated than animal meats, particularly if the word hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, palm kernel oil, palm oil or coconut oil appear on the label. A good rule of thumb is to read product labels and to use products with the least amount of saturated fat in them. And drink milk, but make sure it is low-fat milk.
Fourth, know your family history. Know what diseases run in your family. What did your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles die of? Knowing the diseases that run in your family and passing this information on to your children is very important.
Fifth, don't smoke. Smoking not only causes lung cancer, but also is a risk factor in heart disease, stroke and many respiratory diseases. It is particularly important not to smoke if you have other risk factors for any of these diseases.
So, have your blood cholesterol measured. Find out whether that time bomb is ticking away in YOU!