The old adage is true. We are what we eat. And that worries Dr. Charles Devlin.
"We're still eating as though we are as active as our great-grandparents," according to Dr. Devlin, a Providence cardiologist with South Carolina Heart Center. "But our activity levels have not kept pace with our eating habits."
Most of our ancestors worked sunup to sundown on farms, doing the kind of back-breaking labor that burned calories far more effectively than the sedentary jobs many of us have today.
Those same ancestors also taught us, through the dinnertime admonishments of our parents and grandparents, that we should never be wasteful when it comes to the food on our plates.
"And that makes it really hard for many of us to push away from the table," Dr. Devlin continues. "We're just not programmed to do that."
Dr. Devlin, who labels obesity an American epidemic, treats patients who fall prey to the inexpensive, convenient and often unhealthy calories that are available to us today. He and his colleagues in cardiology see on a daily basis the inevitable result of eating too much of the wrong things.
So do dieticians Kay MacInnis, R.D., and Eileen Corbett, R.D., who counsel patients at Providence Heart Institute. After surgery or another heart procedure, those patients realize that they'll have to change their eating habits – or else.
"People who come into the Cardiac Rehab Lab at Providence for nutritional counseling often have the misconception that if something tastes good, then they can't have it," says Kay.
When she begins dispelling that myth, she sees some of the resistance begin to melt. "Realizing that good nutrition can taste good, that they have options, and that moderation can be learned – all of those work together to help people begin achieving their goals."
Health goals can be reached by eating high-fat foods less often, and in smaller portions, Kay says. Lower-fat living is one of the choices individuals can make that can correlate to lower blood cholesterol levels and, therefore, better heart health.
Choosing a grilled chicken breast over fried chicken, for example, helps people avoid eating unhealthy fat – and possibly eating their way back into the hospital.
Kay and Eileen not only teach people what to eat, but also how to eat. "It only takes about seven minutes for someone to consume a meal, in spite of the fact that it takes 20 minutes for the brain to tell the body it's full," says Kay. "A great deal has been written about the difference in heart disease in America versus European countries, where dining may span a couple of hours or more."
"Our teaching is one-on-one because everyone has a different lifestyle, and we know we must start with where she or he is, then individualize what we teach," says Eileen. She's part of the clinical dietician team that works with acute care patients before they leave the hospital, to help them follow their doctors' orders on their own.
"We encourage patients to make diet changes they can stick with easily," Eileen says. "Someone who loses only one pound a week and keeps it off for a year may be better off than people who change more dramatically but revert to their former ways – and their former weight."