Heart Health 101: How You Can Eat to Live and Live to Eat

The food we eat and the way we eat it have a significant impact on our health – especially heart health. Therefore, forming a healthy relationship with food using some basic guiding principles can play a vital role in improving heart health, says Dr. Anthony Hilliard, chief of cardiology at Loma Linda University’s International Heart Institute.

Eat to Live provides a practical framework for making heart-healthy lifestyle changes around food. Eating to live involves treating food as fuel for the body, says Hilliard. Often, the opposite “live to eat” approach signals that a disproportionate amount of pleasure is given primarily or exclusively to the eating experience itself, which Hilliard says usually gives way to unhealthy choices.

The food you should choose to put into your body should be such that your body works optimally well.Dr. Anthony Hilliard

Instead, eating to live creates a means to optimize the body to enjoy many additional life opportunities, such as physical activity. Hilliard says there are ways to harmonize your life to eat and eat to live your life.

“The food you should choose to put into your body should be such that your body works optimally well,” he says. “You can feel great joy in eating while ensuring that your body finds joy and value in what you give it. It’s a win-win situation when you get pleasure from both.”

The buildup of plaque in the vasculature that affects heart function is rooted in food choices, he says—and it’s essential to understand what components make food unhealthy and how it affects the body.

Hilliard says that foods high in sugar, also known as simple carbohydrates, play a significant causal role in weight gain and obesity, one of the main contributors to heart disease. In response to foods high in sugar, the body initiates a surge in insulin production, which stores the sugar as fat. The rush of sugar and spike in insulin prevents muscles and organs from extracting nutritional value because the sugar is stored as fat.

Instead, complex carbohydrates that contain fiber provide a healthier alternative—brown rice instead of white rice, or whole-wheat bread with nuts versus white bread. It takes longer for the body to digest the fiber in complex carbohydrates. As a result, sugars circulate more slowly in the bloodstream and the body avoids the sugar spike and insulin spike that creates fat.

For those looking to optimize their heart health and adopt an “eat to live and live to eat” approach, Hilliard recommends following some basic steps that will get you far.

Eat fresh foods or, in other words, avoid eating expired foods. These are usually processed foods high in sugar, including unhealthy preservatives like corn syrup.

“If you have to leave something on the counter and it won’t spoil over time, that’s a sign not to eat the food,” says Hilliard.

Include different colors on your plate. “If you look at your plate and everything is the same color, you probably don’t have enough variety on your plate,” says Hilliard.

A useful way to visualize a balanced and colorful dish is by dividing the plate. Half of the plate should have vegetables and fruits. A quarter of the plate should be dedicated to protein and the other quarter to leafy greens and legumes. Doing this is likely to guarantee different colors on the plate, says Hilliard.

Control the pace and portions of food intake. Hilliard recommends imagining dividing your stomach into three layers. When you eat, the bottom layer of the stomach should be food covered by a middle layer of water or liquids. The upper third layer of the stomach should be air or unused. “The goal is not to get full,” he says, “but to get enough food or fuel to perform an activity.”

Dr. Hilliard with house peppers

Based on this approach, Hilliard says you should be able to exercise after eating. If you feel like you can’t, you’ve probably eaten too much. “If you like something so much, eat it at every meal, but just a little bit at a time,” he says. “If you want a second piece of lasagna, just wait three hours.”

Adhering to these basic principles offers a strong foundation for building good heart health and overall heart health, says Hilliard. From there, he says, you can continue to build on the pillars and customize your approach to what you find works best for your body.

Eat to live and live to eat doesn’t count as a diet, which suggests it’s temporary, Hilliard says. Instead, he recommends thinking of this approach to food and nutrition as a “life journey” that will require constant adjustments as your body evolves along with it.

LLU’s Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program provides additional guidance on building good eating habits for those who have experienced a cardiac event or procedure or are living with heart disease. Visit the International Heart Institute online or call 1-800-468-5432 to learn more about cardiovascular care offered at Loma Linda University Health.

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