Can You Reverse Heart Disease?
What may be possible if you have coronary artery disease.
Maybe -- But…
If you have serious heart disease and are extremely motivated, you may be able to make such major changes, but they are difficult to sustain, says Lori Mosca, MD, MPH, PhD, professor of medicine and director of preventive cardiology at Columbia University Medical Center and the author of Heart to Heart: a Personal Plan for Creating a Heart Healthy Family.
“You have to live a very strict lifestyle, way beyond even the normal heart-healthy life,” she says. “And even then, I wouldn’t say you can ‘reverse’ heart disease, because that implies you had something and now you don’t. With very strict changes you can regress heart lesions, but they shrink -- they don’t go away. You can’t cure heart disease, but you can slow its progression.”
Mosca instead emphasizes slowing heart disease, and preventing it in the first place, through lifelong efforts to eat heart healthy, get regular physical activity, avoid smoking, and maintain a healthy weight.
On the diet side, that means embracing variety. “I don’t think that dietary approaches that are highly restrictive are sustainable,” she says. To keep heart disease in check, she advises:
Embrace the USDA’s new “MyPlate” program (similar to a visual she’s had on her Web site for years), in which half your plate is loaded with fruits and vegetables, and the other half is evenly divided between lean proteins and high-quality carbs such as brown rice.
- Limit the saturated fat in your diet to less than 7% of calories.
- Choose heart-healthy sources of fat, such as salmon and other fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, nuts, and olives.
Ornish agrees that for most people who are just looking to either prevent heart disease or slow it down, going entirely “Category 1” isn’t needed. “If you need to reverse a life-threatening illness, you’re well advised to live as much as you can on the healthiest end of the spectrum,” he says. “But if you’re just trying to stay healthy, it’s unsustainable to say, ‘Never eat certain foods.’ It’s much more sustainable to just move in a healthier direction.”
And if you slip up and eat something that’s really not heart-healthy (a bacon cheeseburger, say, or a gooey doughnut) -- don’t beat yourself up. “If you indulge one day, then eat healthy the next. If you don’t exercise one day, do more the next,” says Ornish. “Guilt, shame, and anger are toxic to the heart, so forgive yourself and move on.”
Once you start making those changes, you might find that the rewards spur you to make more.
“We found that the more people changed their diet and lifestyle, the more they felt better, no matter how old or sick they felt,” Ornish says. “The better you feel, the more you want to keep doing it. The myth is that a pill is easy and diet and lifestyle changes are hard, but the data show that less than half the people prescribed Lipitor still take it after a year. Taking a pill to prevent something bad happening is fear-based, and it can be boring. But making healthy changes to your life makes you feel good, so you’re not just living longer, but better.”