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Food and Fitness Tips for Being Heart-Healthy

Most health experts agree that if you eat a balanced, healthy diet and exercise, it can help you to keep a healthy heart, but what exactly does that mean?

Vivek Sailam, MD,cardiologist, with Lourdes Cardiology, offers his best advice for how you can use food and fitness to keep a healthy heart.
Food and Fitness Tips for Being Heart-Healthy
Featured Speaker:
Vivek Sailam, MD
Vivek Sailam, MD is a cardiology specialist in Cherry Hill, NJ and has been practicing for 10 years. He specializes in cardiology.

Learn more about Vivek Sailam, MD

Melanie Cole: Most health experts agree that if you eat a balanced healthy diet and you exercise, it can help keep a healthy heart, but what exactly does that mean? My guest today is Dr. Vivek Sailam. He's a cardiologist with Lourdes’s Cardiology. Welcome to the show. How does someone know if they're heart healthy?

Vivek Sailam, MD: Someone knows if they're heart healthy if they do some common sense items with their nutrition. One thing I always tell patients is that 75% of your appearance is secondary to your dietary habits. One of the things that we get into trouble within our society and our culture is that we eat too much food. Our portions are too big. The first step and the easiest step is to cut our portions down and to stay away from processed foods, which is a big problem for us in terms of being detrimental to our health. The first thing, like I said, cut down your portions. Cut them in half, use a smaller plate and be conscious of what you're putting into your plate. That could be your first step towards being part healthy with your diet.

Melanie: Let's talk specifically about what foods are considered heart healthy because people try and lose weight, which certainly would help your heart and reduce your risk of diabetes, but then they see foods like avocados that are supposed to be good for us, but they're high in calories. Clear some of this all up for us because it could be confusing.

Dr. Sailam: It is very confusing because a lot of times, consumers can be misled by having foods that are fat-free or low salt and such. What I tell people all the time with food is that, number one, make sure the food is natural. You want to stay away from food that's been treated with hormones or with agents that keep them bigger or stronger for long periods of time that they're processed. In terms of foods, you want to focus in on fruits, natural fruits, natural vegetables, whole grains, nuts that are beneficial to us like walnuts and almonds. The other item that you want to stay with is lean, unprocessed, organic grass fed meats. I said a lot there, but what I'm going to emphasize with these meats is that you want meats that are untreated because once you take a meat product that has been injected with hormones, which is a steroid, to make it bigger, guess what? You're eating those items too. You become bigger too. If you go with lean meats and this goes for chicken too along with the beef that’s unprocessed, unhormone injected, it’s going to be better off for your long-term. With fish, the fish has to be wild caught. It cannot be farm raised. Farm raised fish is treated with hormones. These are the simple steps to stay healthy and making sure you have adequate amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables during the day, five to six servings a day, and staying away from foods that are high in sugar and high in fat like cookies and potato chips and those items.

Melanie: It's great to hear what you're saying, but not everybody knows what to do with all of these things, and the convenience factor seems to be a big problem in this country as far as fruits and vegetables, making a salad, making a stir-fry using all these kinds of things you're discussing. What do you tell people when they say I don't even know what to do with kohlrabi or Brussels sprouts or kale? What do I do?

Dr. Sailam: There's a lot of resources that are available in terms of what to do. If you have access to a computer, you can even watch videos online such as on a website like YouTube where they would give you instructions on how to prepare a heart-healthy meal using Brussels sprouts, using broccoli rabe, using some of the kale items you mentioned. There's a tremendous amount of resources. We just have to utilize it, whether it be the Internet, whether it be a book, whether it be a magazine. We have to take the initiative to look up some different ways to prepare our foods. I feel that it’s really important that we prepare our foods because once we let a commercial vendor prepare our food, we have lost control of that point. We don't know how much salt is going into those items. We don't know how much sugar is in these items and we don't know how their products are being processed. If we could take the initiative to prepare our own foods at home, there's an extraordinary amount of resources available in order to give you direction in terms of preparation for these items. They're also available in various supermarkets and what to do with some food items such as Shop-Rite, which is a local vendor. They have free nutritionists. Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital has nutrition programs that you can sign up for and listen to them. I myself do nutrition programs with a local chef, so there's a lot out there. It’s just a matter of taking the initiative to actually get out there and listen to some of the direction that we have with nutrition.

Melanie: We all know that blood pressure is crucial to maintaining a healthy heart. Is it possible to lower blood pressure with diet? You mentioned salt before and sodium, so tell us what you want us to know about blood pressure and nutrition.

Dr. Sailam: I can tell the folks listening to this that blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol can be reversed with nutrition. We've had several examples of individuals who've been on blood pressure medications who've been diabetic. When they change their diet to a more heart-healthy diet, in terms of what we spoke about earlier, a lot of their disease processes have completely reversed and they're off their blood pressure medication. They're off their diabetes medication. Reducing sodium is crucial and key and once you go to these natural diets, they do have a lower sodium amount and lower sodium, in the long run, will decrease your blood pressure. It is possible to get off your medications. I tell this to people to give them encouragement that it can be done.

Melanie: Do you recommend a vegetarian or vegan diet? We’re seeing this obesity epidemic in children. What about children and this nutritional aspect of what we’re seeing today and can they be on a vegetarian diet?

Dr. Sailam: Vegetarian or vegan diets have gotten a lot of press recently. There's been a lot of data associated with them in terms of reversing cardiovascular disease and hypertension, etc. The one thing to remember with vegan diets is that they're great as long as you do them properly. What you want to do with a vegan diet is that you have to have an adequate amount of protein incorporated into that diet. That’s difficult to do without proper planning and proper nutrition in terms of lentils, etc. Vegan diets are great. Can everybody do them? They can't, but I say to people that if you can't do a completely vegan diet, you're going to have to incorporate some meat, again incorporate those lean meat untreated meats into the vegan diet. As far as the vegan diet, we're getting a lot of press because it's shown that it can be extraordinarily beneficial to someone's health in terms of reversing disease processes. As far as childhood obesity, childhood obesity is completely preventable. If you'll notice with a lot of obese children, their parents are obese too. You'll see families have obese people and it's all dietary related. These children, unfortunately, are being exposed to high fracture corn syrup and soda and juices and they're also being exposed to highly processed foods because families are running around from activity to activity, they don't have a chance to sit down and eat a proper meal. They're eating a lot of fast food and that in turn will make these children gain weight. I think these children can prevent some of their potential disease processes down the road.

Melanie: What about dairy products? Where do they fit into this picture?

Dr. Sailam: Same situation with dairy products because just as the meats are treated with growth hormones, the milk that comes out these treated cows, again that milk is hormone infused and that milk is causing havoc. Again, that milk is used to make cream and butter and all these things and it’s causing havoc and inflammation on people’s bodies because of the items they use to process these milk products with.

Melanie: Let's talk about exercise. What types of exercise are the best for our hearts?

Dr. Sailam: The best thing to do with exercise, and exercise is 25% of your appearance, exercise is something that’s really important in the sense that it helps your body metabolize the nutrients that you're taking in. One thing that people have to realize is that with exercise, you have to have a combination of aerobic exercise, which would be a cardiovascular exercise where you raise your heart rate up to a certain level for 20 to 30 minutes three to five times a week. In addition to the aerobic exercise, you want to incorporate resistance training. Resistance training is otherwise known as weight training. The reason for that is because when you stimulate your muscles with resistance, the muscles have receptors that will metabolize sugar and eat that sugar up, lower your blood sugar and then, in turn, help you lose weight down the road. The combination of 50/50, meaning 50% cardiovascular and 50% resistance training, is extremely important. If you're able to do that three to five times a week, that keeps your metabolism at a certain rate and you can maintain a steady body weight.

Melanie: We've talked about exercise. You’ve mentioned some great foods. Explain to us a little bit about nutrition and the heart. Some other things can affect our hearts like sleep and stress. As a cardiologist, tell the listeners what you would like them to know about sleep and stress and how that can affect our hearts too.

Dr. Sailam: These two things are extremely important also. Not sleeping properly causing inflammation. Inflammation along with stress as you mentioned is very detrimental to someone’s body. Mainly the reason for that is because it can raise your blood pressure, it can cause cracks in the arteries of your body, and within those cracks, cholesterol deposits can get stuck and cause blockages. Those blockages can lead to a stroke or a heart attack. Proper sleep, meaning seven to eight hours a day, is very important because it lets your body heal, it lets your body rest. That’s the reason why people sleep. Destressing your life is extremely important because it decreased inflammation. One of the things I talk about with patients and people that see me with stress is that 10 minutes a day of simple meditation and escaping from your day via meditation is extremely important in terms of giving you a recentering and decreasing inflammation. Simple things like meditation which is completely free, which can be very beneficial to you and your health.

Melanie: Wrap it up for us with your best advice about food and fitness for being heart healthy and tell us a little bit about some of the community outreach programs for keeping the community heart healthy.

Dr. Sailam: I think in summary, what we spoke about is really important because a lot of our disease processes can be reversed by having a proper diet. As I mentioned earlier, 75% of your appearance is from your diet. Exercise is so important because it'll prevent disease processes in the future. In terms of outreach programs that we have, we have a tremendous amount of resources as I mentioned earlier. Lourdes Hospital provides nutrition classes. We have community events, Walk with a Doc, Cook with a Doc, Dine with a Doc, we have all these events that are available to the community and they're absolutely free. Please keep an eye out for our advertisements for these and you're welcome to join us for these sessions. Most people, if not all of them, have found them to be very informative and I think they’ve given the community a great connection with our health system in realizing that we are there not to give out medications, but we’re trying to reverse some of the disease processes that we’re seeing and making everyone healthy for the future.

Melanie: Fantastic information. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise in this area. It’s so important. As you said, with what we’re seeing with obesity and families and children, it’s more important now than ever. Thank you again for joining us. This is Lourdes Health Talk. For more information, please visit That’s This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.