Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. One in every three deaths is from heart disease or stroke. That’s equal to 2,150 deaths per day, or one death every 40 seconds! You don’t have to become a statistic— heart attacks and strokes can be prevented.
Because February is American Heart Month, I thought I’d write a little about the roots of the South Beach Diet, an eating plan I created in the early 1990s to help my heart and diabetes patients improve their blood chemistries, lose weight, and avoid heart attacks and strokes. That plan continues to help my patients to this day.
First, it’s important to know that the South Beach Diet is far more than a weight-loss program. Good nutrition is the cornerstone of a healthy heart and a healthy body. You can’t have one without the other. When you consistently eat the right carbohydrates (nutrient-dense, fiber-rich vegetables, whole fruits, and whole grains), lean protein, low-fat dairy, and the right fats, you give your body the nutrients it needs to help regulate your blood pressure, fight cell-damaging inflammation, establish normal cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and reduce the risk of potentially deadly blood clots.
Through the 1980s and early 1990s, I watched my patients, the country, and frankly myself struggle with the so-called heart-healthy low-fat, high-carb diet. We tried our best to stick with it, but we were always hungry and rarely satisfied. What was even more distressing to me was that I saw problems in my patients’ blood chemistries as we began to measure triglycerides (the form in which fat is stored in the body’s fat cells) and good HDL cholesterol in addition to total cholesterol and bad LDL. I observed that some patients’ triglycerides rose in response to the strict low-fat, high-carb diet they were following. We now know that a high triglyceride level is often the body’s response to excess sugar and starch in the diet. But back then, this wasn’t well understood. My experience with these patients was corroborated in the clinical trials I was reading about at the time.
A revealing clinical trial
To find out how a good fats, good carbs approach stacked up against the old standard low-fat “heart healthy” diet, my colleagues and I conducted a small clinical trial comparing our new dietary approach with what was then called the Step II American Heart Association (AHA) Diet (their strictest low-fat diet at the time). In a group of 60 overweight participants, half went on our diet and the other half went on the Step II diet. After 12 weeks, five of the low-fat dieters had dropped out, but only one of the South Beach dieters had gone off the diet. Clearly, the low-fat diet was harder to swallow.
In the end, the South Beach dieters lost nearly twice as much weight as the low-fat dieters (a mean weight loss of 13.6 pounds compared to 7.5 pounds by the low-fat group). South Beach dieters also saw an improvement in their LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. But I’ve saved the best for last: The South Beach dieters lost more belly fat than the low-fat dieters. And belly fat is a significant risk factor for having a heart attack.
That study was just beginning of the heart-healthy South Beach Diet. As it turned out, our eating plan worked so well that a Miami TV station asked if it could offer the diet to its viewers. Hundreds of South Floridians went on the diet and lost weight three years running, and its popularity eventually led to the publication of my first nonacademic work, The South Beach Diet, in 2003.
Today, more than 10 years later, there is evidence from hundreds of studies proving that eating good fats, good carbs, and lean protein is the best dietary approach to treating obesity, abnormal blood fats, and other heart-related problems.
So how important
is weight loss for your heart?
There is no question that carrying around even a few pounds of excess weight can be taxing to your heart. For every pound you weigh, your body must develop millions of extra tiny blood vessels to feed it. If you were to take all of these blood vessels and place them in a straight line, it would add up to about 1 mile. So when you take off 5 pounds of fat, you are also losing 5 miles of blood vessels through which your heart would have to send blood (they are reabsorbed by the body). No wonder losing just a little weight can take stress off your heart and lower your blood pressure. It also reduces the chronic inflammation that is so harmful to your brain, and all your other organs, as well.
If you or any of your family members suffer from heart disease, or if you simply want to learn more about your risk factors for heart disease, including obesity, I urge you to read my book, The South Beach Heart Health Revolution, available wherever books are sold.
Frankly, heart month should be every month—not just February. It would certainly help to eliminate deaths from heart disease in this country.