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Three Heart-Healthy Makeovers

Can you really improve your heart health and reduce your risk for cardiac disease?

A Graduate Student Takes Action Against Heart Disease continued...

For Morgan, heart disease is something that hits close to home: Three of her four grandparents died of either heart attacks or strokes, and her father has struggled with high blood pressure throughout his lifetime.

Only a few years ago, Morgan herself had a brush with heart disease and struggled with her weight. She knew she had to turn her own health around if she was going to live long enough to help others improve their health.

"I was going through a pretty tough semester in the fall of 2006," says Morgan. "I had three statistics classes, and at the same time I was coordinating a community health and wellness fair. So between these two major projects, it was a bit much, and over the course of several months I really let my health hit rock bottom."

Risk factors of heart disease

And she paid the price. About a week later, she had a doctor's appointment, where she learned her cholesterol was high, her blood pressure was above normal, and her weight was reaching upwards of 250. At 5 feet 4 inches, she knew she was in trouble.

"I thought to myself, 'Here I am planning a health fair, and I can't even keep my own house in order,'" says Morgan.

Morgan's plan was to start over, and set fair and attainable heart-health goals she could reach. She made it her mission to master every piece of cardio equipment at the fitness center -- the elliptical, the treadmill, the bike, and the dreaded stair climber. After a few months, she could spend an hour on any machine at the gym and feel good about it.

Heart-healthy eating

As a PhD student, she knows the value of education, so she learned more about nutrition and which foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, would help her cause. She drank 80 ounces of water every day, and used 6:30 p.m. as her personal cutoff for eating or snacking to avoid going to bed with a full stomach and to keep her daily calorie intake under control. Since 2006, Morgan has lost almost 50 pounds and continues to work at her weight. For the sake of her heart health, she's working on getting her body mass index (BMI) under 25 and her waist circumference under 35 inches -- both good measurements for women at risk for heart disease.

Indeed, a healthy meal plan is key to Morgan's success. For heart-healthy eating, Zelman recommends brushing your teeth right after dinner to control nighttime munching and eating a vegetarian meal several times a week (for low-cal, nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich boosts).

Women and heart disease

"We have to remember that women are not immune to heart disease by any stretch of the imagination," says Jennifer H. Mieres, MD, a cardiologist at New York University. "In fact, today more women than men are dying from cardiovascular disease in the United States."

But Morgan is working hard to avoid becoming a statistic. "Vernita is a true success story," says Mieres, who was part of Morgan's treatment team. "She used small steps to get big gains. Losing weight, reducing her cholesterol, making lifestyle changes -- these factors are critical to Vernita's avoiding following in the path of her relatives who have had heart disease and stroke."

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