Heart Health 101: How to Eat to Live and Live to Eat

The food we eat and how we eat it greatly affect our health—especially heart health. Developing healthy eating habits using some basic guidelines can play a vital role in improving heart health, says Anthony Hilliard, MD, chief of cardiology at Loma Linda University’s International Heart Institute.

Eat to Live provides a practical framework for making healthy lifestyle changes around food. Hilliard says that eating to live involves treating food as fuel for the body. Often the reverse of the live-to-eat approach signals that a disproportionate amount of pleasure comes primarily or solely from the experience of eating itself, which Hilliard says usually gives way to unhealthy choices.

The food you should put into your body should be such that your body works optimally well.Dr. Anthony Hilliard

Instead, eating to live creates a means to optimize the body to enjoy many additional life opportunities, such as physical activity. Hilliard says there are ways to balance living to eat and eating to live in your life.

“The food you should be putting into your body should be such that your body functions optimally well,” he says. “You can experience great joy in food while ensuring that your body finds joy and value in what you give it. It’s a win-win situation where you get the satisfaction of doing both tasks.”

According to him, the formation of plaques in the vascular system, which affects the work of the heart, depends on the choice of food, and it is important to understand what components make food unhealthy and how it affects the body.

Hilliard says foods high in sugar, also known as simple carbohydrates, play a significant causal role in weight gain and obesity, which is a major contributor to heart disease. In response to foods with a high sugar content, the body begins to produce insulin, which stores sugar in the form of fat. A sugar spike and insulin spike prevent muscles and organs from receiving nutritional value because the sugar is stored as fat.

Instead, complex carbohydrates that contain fiber are healthier alternatives—brown rice instead of white rice, or whole-wheat bread with nuts versus white bread. The body takes longer to digest the fiber in complex carbohydrates. As a result, sugar circulates more slowly in the blood, and the body avoids the spike in sugar and insulin that creates fat.

For those looking to optimize their heart health and adopt an “eat to live, live to eat” approach, Hilliard recommends following a few basic steps to help you do so.

Eat fresh food, or in other words, avoid eating food without an expiration date. These are usually processed foods high in sugar, including unhealthy preservatives such as corn syrup.

“If you’ve left something on the counter and it hasn’t gone bad over time, that’s a sign the food shouldn’t be eaten,” says Hilliard.

Add different colors to the plate. “If you look at your plate and everything is the same color, you probably don’t have enough variety on your plate,” says Hilliard.

One useful way to visualize a balanced and bright meal is to divide the plate into parts. Half of the plate should be vegetables and fruits. A quarter of the plate should be dedicated to proteins, and the other quarter to leafy greens and legumes. If you do this, you’re more likely to guarantee different colors on your plate, says Hilliard.

Control the pace and portions of meals. Hilliard recommends imagining that you’ve divided your stomach into three layers. When you eat, the bottom layer of your stomach should be food and the top layer should be water or liquid. The upper third layer of the stomach should be air or unused. “The goal isn’t to get full,” he says, “but to get enough food or fuel to perform an activity.”

Dr. Gilliard with homemade pepper

Based on this approach, Hilliard says you should be able to exercise after eating. If you feel like you can’t, you’ve probably eaten too much. “If you really like something, eat it every time, but just a little bit,” he says. “If you want a second piece of lasagna, just wait three hours.”

According to Hilliard, following these basic principles creates a strong foundation for developing heart health and heart health in general. From there, he says, you can continue to build the foundation and adjust your approach to what you think works best for your body.

Eating to live and living to eat doesn’t count as a diet, which means it’s temporary, Hilliard says. Instead, he recommends viewing this approach to food and nutrition as a “lifetime journey” that will require constant adjustments as your body develops.

LLU’s Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program provides additional guidance on developing good eating habits for those who have experienced a cardiac event or procedure or are living with heart disease. Visit the International Heart Institute online or call 1-800-468-5432 to learn more about cardiovascular services offered at Loma Linda University Health.

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