I recently did the “ugly” cry in front of 100 corporate clients. It was a humbling experience, to say the least. The presentation topic was heart health in celebration of February’s Heart Health Awareness Month.  Stories, I am told, help us connect with our audience, so I had decided to talk about my dad.  I stood in front of a life-sized picture of my sweet dad waving from his beloved tractor. My son, Jack, two years old at the time was sitting on his lap. Right before I put the microphone to my mouth, I took a look at the picture and the tears began to flow. Crap.

Twenty years ago, at the age of 50, my dad had quadruple bypass surgery to save his life from a 90% blocked artery nicknamed the “widow artery” for good reason. As a high-school senior, I can remember how vulnerable we felt as a family. It is never easy seeing your parents scared and unsure of the future. While the surgery was a success, the experience was life-changing. It was a major influence in my career choice and the decision to become a vegetarian in college.

While genes play a role in the trajectory of our health, our lifestyle choices have a larger impact. From a recent genetic test, I found out I have a 9x higher risk factor for heart disease compared to other women my age. The good news? Heart disease is 80% preventable. 80%.

What can we do? The American Heart Association identifies “Life’s Simple 7” to prevent heart disease which include:

1. Eat a heart healthy diet

2. Maintain a healthy body weight

3. Move daily

4. Stop smoking

5. Maintain a healthy blood pressure

6. Maintain healthy blood cholesterol

7. Maintain healthy blood sugars

While I agree with the “simple” 7, I would argue that they are guidelines, not steps to help us know how to take action. Enter the Registered Dietitian. If dad came into my office, how would I guide him? (FYI – never try to counsel family members.)

We would start with identifying his motivations. I am assuming the four grandsons below would be high on the list. Identifying the reasons we make lifestyle changes are a must for sustainability.

Next, I would commend him on his active lifestyle. Outside of racquetball and walks with my mom, this man doesn’t sit still for long. Regular activity is protective for his heart, and it doesn’t have to be intense. Just 2,000 extra steps a day, or ~20 minutes, can lower your heart disease risk by a whopping 10%.

A colorful plate, filled with produce, is one of the most powerful dietary choices to prevent heart disease.  The American Heart Association recommends 4.5 cups of produce per day. This amount can lower heart diseases by 30%.  If you are currently eating that recommendation, don’t hold back, add more.

The dietary advice where dad would say, “shut the front door,” would be our conversation about meat. My dad takes great pride and enjoyment in his BBQ chicken, brisket and ribs. While I would never ask him to stop grilling, I would gently remind him of the heart-health benefits of fish and the occasional meatless meal. A discussion about portion size and meat might be mentioned as well. It is well-evidenced that plant-eaters live longer, healthier lives than heavy meat eaters. I would recommend at least 2-3 servings of fish per week, and we would identify meatless meals that feel “meaty” to him.

Finally, when it comes to heart health, most people think about fat but not sugar. A diet high in added sugars raises triglycerides making our heart work harder. My dad understands that his evening bowl of ice cream has sugar, but there is confusion about processed grains. Granola bars, one slice of bread too many, and cereals would be his sources of processed grains to reduce. Replacing these foods with more produce and whole-grains would be the ideal goal.

These dietary changes would likely result in shedding a few pounds. If you are overweight or obese, losing a mere 5% of body weight can significantly improve blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and improve energy.

I’ll finish by thanking my corporate clients for holding the space for me to share my feelings last week. While it was a touch embarrassing, the raw feelings were real. Heart disease affects 1 and 3 of us (and 1 and 2 WOMEN), but we CAN do something about it. I want to choose a lifestyle that leaves me with no regrets, and I pray the ones I love choose the same.

Jennifer McDaniel

Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.