Dr. Arthur Agatston has some healthy advice for your heart: Mow your lawn yourself.
In his latest book, The South Beach Wake-Up Call, Why America is Still Getting Fatter and Sicker, Agatston, the Miami Beach doctor behind the best-selling South Beach Diet, argues our toxic lifestyle has spawned America’s unhealthiest generation. He calls it “Generation S.” That’s S as in “sick.”
“They were the generation who grew up on junk food and led more sedentary lives,” said the cardiologist. “That lifestyle can lead to heart diseases.”
He’s most concerned with men and women between ages 35 and 44. While the death rates from heart disease have dropped since the 1960s within the general population, they are increasing in the younger age groups — people in their mid-30s and 40s.
“We have made progress in the medical field but if we don’t start changing our eating habits and becoming more active, the medicine alone doesn’t look like it is going to work,’’ said Agatston, the medical director for wellness and prevention for Baptist Health South Florida.
Agatston might just be right. According to the American Heart Association, one-third of American adults are obese and report no aerobic activity. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and risk factors for heart attacks — diabetes, hypertension, weight — are on the rise.
“It isn’t necessarily that we don’t exercise. It is that we are sitting all the time and technology is making it even easier for us to stay on the couch,” said Agatston, showing images of how the lawn mower evolved to make his point.
“Before, they used to do it with a machete. Then we had to push the mower. Then they invented one for you to sit and drive it. Now it is a robot. You don’t even have to do anything anymore.”
The Calcium Score
One of Agatston’s big issues is how to prevent heart-related illnesses.
“We are doing well with treating people after they have a heart attack, but we are not focusing so much on preventing one in the first place,” he said.
In 1988, Agatston and radiologist Dr. Warren Janowitz developed the Calcium Score, a test that determines the level of calcified plaque that builds up in the coronary and carotid arteries, the arteries that supply oxygenated blood from the heart to the neck and brain (the carotid arteries run through the neck, one on each side). Through a CT heart scan, doctors can determine the extent that plaque particles have lined the inner artery walls, causing the walls to thicken. The plaques can rupture, which can lead to heart attacks.
A diet that’s high in calories, high in processed food and low in nutrients found in fruits and vegetables causes the plaque to build up. A lack of exercise exacerbates the problem.
And doctors often can see the calcified plaque 20 years or so before a heart attack takes place. Hence, the prevention.
“We have been doing this test for nearly two decades,” he said. “It took a little while but it has become widely accepted in our field.”
Agatston recommends that even healthy patients get screened through a CT heart scan and advanced blood test to determine if they have plaque building up in their arteries — especially if there is a history of heart disease in the family.
Robert Fiore, 51, did just that. Fiore said he was advised by a fellow attorney to pay a visit to Agatston to make sure everything was all right.
“We can bury our heads in the sand and pretend that nothing can go wrong with our health or we can proactively take care of our bodies,’’ Fiore said.
“I would rather make sure that I am doing things right and prevent something from happening.”
Fiore is a trial lawyer who deals with cases of medical malpractice. He said he often sees people trying to do “medicine on the cheap’’ once their problems worsen, which can potentially lead to catastrophic events.
Luckily for Fiore, he has been doing things right. His heart came out “clean” on his test results, he said.
“I knew that I was eating right and staying active but I wanted to know that for a fact,” he said. “Now I am going to follow Dr. Agatston’s advice and stay on the right path.”
Agatston’s book details seven strategies for transforming your life.
Most of the strategies focus on eating healthy, from getting rid of unhealthy foods to cooking more at home, to shopping for healthy foods and incorporating a meatless meal or two into your weekly menu planning.
“People are not having enough home-cooked meals and in average we consume 500 extra calories when we eat out,” Agatston said.
“It is important to know where your food comes from and how it is been prepared. The best way to know that is if you are doing it yourself.”
For breakfast, eat lean protein and fiber to ward off mid-morning hunger pains.
“I usually start my day off with a couple of scrambled eggs or an omelet made with chopped vegetables, reduced-fat cheese, or salmon,” wrote Agatston. “Chopped frozen spinach and tofu are also good choices for a healthy breakfast.”
Even if you are not that hungry in the morning, it is important to eat something healthy: Whole-grain oatmeal, whole-grain cereals, eggs with fresh herbs or vegetables, fresh fruit, whole wheat toast with peanut butter .
Agatston is a strong advocate of cooking at home.
“To become a healthier society, we need to stop our dependency on fast food,” he said. “We need to stop considering it an option and instead start enjoying cooking with the family and the kids, and making it an everyday activity.”
To make it easier, he recommends cooking in advance and keeping meals in the freezer to reheat. Not every meal has to be made from scratch.
Many supermarkets offer prepared foods that can be smart options as a main dish, like rotisserie chicken, baked salmon or roasted turkey breast. But, he adds, check on how the food is prepared before buying to avoid high levels of sodium, sugar and fat.
As for lifestyle changes, Agatston notes that the first step starts with decluttering your home. Ask yourself: Is your kitchen functional and are your dining surfaces clean? Is your bedroom full of electronic equipment or is it conducive to sleep? Are your indoor and outdoor spaces workout friendly?
Although he acknowledged that “Generation S” members lead busy lives, he said that shouldn’t be an excuse to lead toxic lives. According to the 66-year-old cardiologist, people used to be just as busy back in the day.
“They just didn’t have as many fast-food options or weren’t as dependent on technology,” he said. “So we need to start taking the stairs, mowing our lawns, walking a little more. We need to get moving.”