Health Care

Nutritionist Offers Heart-Healthy Tips

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February is "American Heart Month," and according to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of black men and women. Nutritionist Rovenia Brock offers tips on maintaining a healthy heart.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is NEWS & NOTES.

February is American Heart Month. And according to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the number one killer of black men and women. For more on identifying risk factors and how you can keep your heart healthy, NPR's Farai Chideya turn to NEWS & NOTES nutritionist Rovenia Brock.

CHIDEYA: Now it's estimated that there are approximately 700,000 African-Americans with heart failure in the United States. And the number is expected to grow to 900,000 by 2010, which is, you know, just right around the corner.

So why is heart disease so prevalent in the African-American community?

Dr. ROVENIA BROCK (Nutritionist): Well, I think lifestyle is at top of the list. You know, we continue to eat too much. We eat large or consume larger portions than needed, therefore overindulging in calorie consumption. Our sedentary lifestyles are a big factor. Like most of America, we eat too much and move too little. At the same time, I think for the African-American community we have dietary staples - think soul food - that are prepared by traditional means, lots of fat, lots of salt, lots of sugar.

And so we're eating in ways that work against us, rather than for us. And at the same time, we're really not burning up those calories and not to mention the fact that we're eating foods that are just not all that good for us.

CHIDEYA: What are some of the other factors that contribute to heart disease?

Dr. BROCK: High blood pressure, obesity, diabetes. But I would say even if those health factors or diseases run in your family, you can protect yourself by taking more prudent measures in terms of your lifestyle habits or your lifestyle choices.

For example, not smoking, drinking alcohol, if at all, in moderation; making sure that you eat - make healthier food choices like eating lots more fresh fruits and vegetables, eating more beans and eating whole grains. If you got an average of two to three servings, or two or more servings of whole grains daily, it could lower your risk of heart disease by 30 percent.

CHIDEYA: Now how do you approach your doctor? Say that you are someone who, like me, is 37, overweight, but not, at least to this point, showing any symptoms of any major diseases. What should I ask my doctor about heart disease?

BROCK: I think the first thing, Farai, you want to do is share with your doctor any family medical history of heart disease or its risk factors like the diabetes and the hypertension that we mentioned earlier. So if you have any of those factors in your family medical history or your family medical tree, you want to share that with your doctor so that you partner with your caregiver and you're able to make informed choices.

At the same time, by sharing that information he or she can run tests looking at you specifically based on your genetic predisposition to the disease. For example, you want to keep up with your lipid profile. So you want to know what your total HDL and LDL cholesterol levels are. And having said all that, you use that information to make more helpful and informed decisions about your choices.

CHIDEYA: So sometimes you walk into the drugstore and you'll see machines by the pharmacy that tests for blood pressure, heart rate - what about these machines? Do they work or are they a good way of self diagnosing or are they just a rip off?

BROCK: I think in most cases they are pretty good. There are some that are not maintained and you can kind of look around the area, look around the store, and make your own -draw you a conclusion about whether or not you think this is a good bet. But it is a great - it's a good start. I will say that.

CHIDEYA: Let's drill down a little bit on the exercise question. There's different kinds of exercises, some that are really about toning your muscles and some that are cardiovascular. What are we really talking about here when we're talking about exercise that prevents heart disease?

BROCK: We're talking cardio exercise when we talk about preventing heart disease. So what is the simplest one that everyone can do? Walk. You can simply hit the pavement and start walking. And not only will that help to protect your heart, but it also helps to keep your weight down, helps you to burn fat and calories. And this is an overall exercise that can net really big results.

CHIDEYA: And for someone who may not be in great shape - not horrible shape, but not great shape - what do you recommend in terms of a good walking regime?

Dr. BROCK: Well for a starter if we're talking about a beginner, I'm suggesting that you get the walk in at least starting out with a half hour a day. You should be able to cover probably a mile or something leading up to a mile, and then build on that by increasing your steps, or increasing your time, or increasing your distance. But at least get a half hour in a day.

And if you have lots of weight to lose, then obviously you're going to want to walk longer, cover more greater ground or more ground so increase your distance. And at some point, you're going to want to put hills in there so that you challenge your body to a much bigger extent.

CHIDEYA: Okay, final question on this heart disease preventing exercise. In many parts of the country, including where you are right now in the Washington D.C. area, it's icy, it's cold, it's not a good time to walk, especially if you are a little wobbly on your knees. What things could people do at home when they don't have the opportunity to walk if they're not belonging to a gym?

Dr. BROCK: Well first, I want to say that even though conditions, weather conditions may not permit your taking a long brisk walk in your community or outside, you can certainly walk indoors by going to a neighborhood track at a school, a local school or going to the mall and walking around the mall.

Having said that, if there are stairs in the home and you are in reasonably good shape, then go up and down flights of stairs as often as you can and as many you can. Make it two or three times a day if you need to.

The other thing you can do is it's not such a bad idea to pick up some weights. And if you don't have those, if you don't have dumbbells at home, try like a bottle, a liter bottle of water and use that to toning exercises for your muscles, because that too burns fat, helps you to tone, and helps you to burn calories.

CHIDEYA: Well Doctor Ro, as always, great advice. Thank you.

Dr. BROCK: Always a pleasure.

COX: Rovenia Block is a - Rovenia Brock, excuse me, is a regular contributor to NEWS & NOTES and author of "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets To Living Healthy." She spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

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