Your General Health Questions Answered

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You asked, Dr. Hurst answered! Here are the top seven general health questions and answers about your day to day life. 

1. Plant-based meat alternatives – like Beyond Burgers – have become very popular. But compared to red meat, are they actually healthier for our heart? 

The most significant point is no research shows these meat substitutes are better for your health. Nutrition science is challenging. We don’t have great research data. Most of what we think we know about nutrition is from observational studies which are prone to flaws. I respect that meat alternatives are chosen by people who want a more plant-focused diet, but are they healthier is still unknown. For me personally, the fact these meat alternatives are highly processed with 20 or more ingredients makes me wary of recommending them as a healthier alternative. 

2. Most people say they KNOW what they need to do to be healthier, but have a hard time doing it. You said that we should view achieving our best health as a “skill” that needs to be practiced and mastered. Why do you say that?

I learned early in my cardiology career when I became interested in helping my patients who wanted to improve their health that knowledge wasn’t enough. Knowledge is important, but it is only a part of change. You still need action. You need to execute it. 

As anyone who has tried to learn a new skill knows whether it’s playing golf or a guitar, having knowledge about how to do it doesn’t mean you can do it. 

It’s the same thing for behavior change and getting healthier. Success comes from practice and developing the skillset, specifically the most powerful skill in learning how to change, namely your daily habits. Developing your habits is a proven strategy for lasting change and weight loss. And if you want proof of that, ask anyone you know that has lost weight and kept it off for a long time how they did it, and it’s almost certain they will tell you they changed their habits about what they eat and their physical activity. 

3. How can others help us get healthier?

Getting healthier is usually about behavior change. We want to start doing more of things that are good for us and less of things that are not good for us. We tend to rely on willpower and motivation to make these changes, but those are unreliable strategies because willpower and motivation go up and down with time and circumstance. What is much more effective is to use the science of behavior change to our advantage. Get clear on what you want to do, break it down into easily accomplished daily tasks that can become habits, set triggers or reminders, track your progress. Where others come in, whether it’s a family member, friend, health coach, or healthcare professional, is to provide support, encouragement, and accountability. I believe most people – not all – have success with accountability partners that are supportive and encouraging. I heard a great quote the other day that I don’t remember who said it, and I am going to paraphrase, but it’s something like shaming someone can create action, but inspiring them can create transformation.  And that’s been the experience in my practice in helping people achieve better health.

4. How does social connection benefit our health? 

The research on social connection and health is very compelling. Although there are different definitions of social connection, what is clear is that being socially disconnected is associated with poor health, in some studies as bad for you as smoking. The question I ask my patients to determine their social connection is, do you feel lonely? For those who do feel lonely, some or most of the time, I ask them to prioritize being socially connected more deeply with a few people than more superficially with a lot of people. In other words, quality over quantity.

5. What are the heart health benefits of owning a pet? 

As a pet lover myself, I love that there is research that shows owning a pet is associated with a lower risk for heart disease. The benefit seems to be stronger for dog owners, but cat owners also benefit. The research doesn’t tell us why, but I think it’s evident to anyone who owns pets. They are part of our family; they provide companionship and help us feel socially connected. If we own a dog, it may be as simple as we are more likely to walk them each day, and maybe it’s something that research can’t assess like pets teach us about living in the moment and unconditional love that helps life be better.

6. How does coffee help or hurt our heart health? 

The good news if you’re a coffee drinker is that up to 4 cups a day is associated with a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, dementia, and Parkinson’s. However, there are some potential negative effects of coffee besides bad breath. Mainly the possible negative effects are due to caffeine, which does transiently raise blood pressure, can make some people anxious and jittery, and can cause extra heartbeats or palpitations. It can affect sleep if drank later in the day. Overall, coffee is associated with better health, but I would add the caveat; this probably does not apply to the high sugar added coffee drinks that are so popular.

7. How does warmer weather impact our heart? What are some specific actions we should take to minimize our risk of heart issues during the summer?

Summertime is when we want to get outside and enjoy the warm weather, and that’s generally a good thing, but there is a danger from excessive heat. About 600 people a year die from heatstroke, which is when the body becomes overheated and overwhelmed. Good strategies to avoid the negative effects of the heat include staying hydrated, avoiding excessive alcohol, and heavy exercise. When you are out in the heat, try to avoid the middle of the day and being in the direct sunlight if possible and wear appropriate clothing when it’s really hot.

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