Heart-Healthy Living

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Kara Davis, M.D.



women I meet, if asked about their greatest health concern, would
probably name breast cancer as the malady they most fear. But though
breast cancer might generate a more passionate reaction than heart
disease, the truth of the matter is this: More women in the United
States die each year from heart disease than from all cancers combined.

out of five women in this country has some form of cardiovascular
disease. It is the leading cause of death in American women, claiming
more than half a million lives annually.

it’s no longer considered an older woman’s disease. Even though women
typically don’t show signs of heart disease until their 60s (roughly 10
years later than men), about 9,000 women each year under age 45
experience a heart attack.

addition to the age at onset, there are other things that distinguish
heart disease in women from heart disease in men. Women tend to do worse
after their first heart attack. Forty-two percent of women who have a
heart attack will die within the first year as compared to 24 percent of

Heart disease often
goes unrecognized in women. The symptoms may be unusual, ignored or
attributed to something less serious, such as indigestion. And many
women don’t experience any symptoms at all prior to having their first
heart attack.

I’m not
telling you all this because I want to leave you worried and
apprehensive; but I do want to stir up in you a desire to modify your
lifestyle so that your risk of developing heart disease is lowered.

lifestyles play a major role in our health and longevity. In America,
300,000 deaths each year are related to improper diet and inadequate
exercise. If you add the deaths attributable to smoking, alcohol,
illicit drugs and sexual indiscretion, the number becomes astonishing.

is such a major factor in heart disease that an estimated 80 percent of
cases are linked directly to unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits.
Solomon said, “Where there is no guidance, the people fall” (Prov.
11:14, NASB).

But when it
comes to health, too many of us are falling, even in the face of
reliable and readily available guidance. Information on health abounds
and is more accessible now than at any other time in our history.

research has increased the level of understanding for not only
physicians and other health care providers but also the general public.
Television, newspapers, magazines and the Internet provide a
never-ending flow of data on health-related topics. The information is
there; we’re just not implementing it.

course, not everyone who suffers from a heart attack or finds himself
in need of bypass surgery can shoulder the entire blame for his
situation. Certainly there are people who have a predisposition to heart
disease that is totally beyond their control.

in spite of the fact that some of us are in a position to change our
risk for disease through modifying our behavior, too many (born-again
believers included) are simply not taking any tangible steps toward

what are some ways to lower your risk? The majority of risk factors for
heart disease can be positively modified through lifestyle changes.
Only one risk factor—having a genetic predisposition—is completely
beyond our control.

risk factors include tobacco use, high blood pressure, high cholesterol,
diabetes, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, all of which are
influenced by the way we live.

cigarette smoking and a family history of heart disease, all the risk
factors listed above are impacted by our eating and exercise habits. As I
mentioned before, poor diet and a lack of exercise are the cause of
300,000 deaths each year. Even if a risk factor cannot be entirely
eliminated by practicing healthier habits (there are plenty of people,
for instance, who diligently follow a low-salt diet but still have high
blood pressure), lifestyle modification is still recommended and is
highly beneficial.

modification may also impact a risk factor I haven’t yet mentioned—an
unhealthy emotional state. The scientific community continues to confirm
what the Bible has taught us all along: There’s a compelling link
between negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and hostility and an
increased risk for heart disease.

connection between heart failure and anger is especially strong. Anger
and hostility evoke physiological responses in our bodies that are
potentially life-threatening.

of us at times respond in anger to such things as criticism or
frustration. But many women have a tendency to respond angrily with
little or no provocation. Those who have this personality type not only
are at increased risk for heart disease but also are prone to develop it
at an early age.

One study
conducted on people receiving heart scans showed an association between
angry facial expressions and abnormalities in heart function. Another
study showed the converse—that humor served to protect the heart. No
wonder the Bible tells us that “a happy heart makes the face cheerful”
and “a cheerful look brings joy to the heart” (Prov. 15:13,30, NIV)!

As Spirit-filled believers, we have the power to lower our risk for heart disease. So why aren’t we using it?

spent many years in clinical practice and in seeking insight from the
Lord on matters pertaining to health. Needless to say, I’ve treated
numerous Christian women who have been successful in taking charge of
their lifestyles to improve their health.

I’ve also had my share of patients who failed. From them I’ve learned
that although there are many reasons a person may fail in this attempt,
two stand out. One is that we tend to rely on our own abilities,
underestimating the difficulty involved in changing our lifestyles.
Another is that all too often (deep down in our “never admit” zone)
we’re getting a lot of satisfaction from indulging our flesh.

who has ever tried to break an old habit or develop a new one knows the
task can be challenging. And implementing a “heart-healthy” lifestyle
is no exception. You must change several things—what you eat, how much
you eat, how often you eat, the way you prepare your food and your level
of physical activity.

even before you attempt to make changes, you must acknowledge the
difficulty of the task. Sometimes when I counsel Christian women on how
tough it is to change old habits, they grandly proclaim the first part
of Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ” (NKJV). Sadly,
they don’t recognize that it’s the second part of this verse—”who
strengthens me”—that is so vital to our success.

we can do all things through Christ, but we must never forget it is the
Lord who gives us strength. The likelihood for long-term success
through sheer determination alone is not very high, but when we humble
ourselves and receive power through the Holy Spirit, we can walk in

The Bible tells us
that the Holy Spirit has given us “everything we need for life and
godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3, NIV). He has equipped us to live soberly and to
practice self-discipline with moderation in every aspect of our lives.

don’t think Jesus gave us the “authority to trample on snakes and
scorpions” (Luke 10:19) only to render us powerless in resisting a
second serving of cheesecake. If, however, we want access to this level
of authority, we must first recognize the source. Then we, like the
apostle Paul, can experience God’s power “made perfect in weakness” (2
Cor. 12:9) and receive the strength we need to change our lifestyles and
improve our health.


The second reason for failure is that we aren’t serious enough about
subjecting our flesh. In my years of practice, I’ve had female patients
with high cholesterol tell me they refuse to cut back on hamburgers,
pork chops and steaks. I’ve seen women with diabetes who would rather
increase their dosage of insulin than walk for half an hour each day.
And I’ve watched women with high blood pressure pour on the salt for no
other reason than to satisfy a craving for salty foods.

Scripture we’re admonished to keep our flesh under subjection. But the
reality is this: We have become so cozy with the self-indulgent
tendencies of the world that we hardly notice when they rub off on us.
For many Christians, the attributes of self-control, sobriety,
discipline and moderation have yielded to a mind-set that says, “If it
feels good (or, for that matter, if it tastes good)—do it!”

when we speak of issues such as self-indulgence and yielding to the
flesh, the first thing that comes to mind is sexual sin. But there’s
more to lust than fornication. Giving in to the cravings of the flesh in
any way, including indulging ourselves with food, is a dangerous

The Bible links
this form of sin to self-indulgence and gluttony, as this vivid
description of Israel’s rebellion shows: “Jeshurun [Israel] grew fat and
kicked; filled with food, he became heavy and sleek. He abandoned the
God who made him and rejected the Rock his Savior” (Deut. 32:15).

heart-healthy diet is different from the typical American diet. It is
high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes. It requires
that we cut back on foods high in saturated fat and trans-fatty acids,
and instead eat more foods containing monounsaturated fats and omega-3
fatty acids.

Living in a
heart-healthy way also requires us to exercise regularly and strive to
maintain a healthy weight. These dramatic changes cannot be realized if
we are unwilling to deny the flesh.

to have a healthy heart, it is crucial that we purge ourselves of any
unhealthy emotions. We must take Paul’s advice to “get rid of all
bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form
of malice” (Eph. 4:31).

His words aren’t simply a formula for maintaining peaceful fellowship. They are a recipe that could save our lives.

don’t hang on to deadly emotions. Let go of bitterness, be slow to
anger and be quick to forgive. Your obedience will not only be pleasing
to the Lord; it will also protect your heart.

Christian women, we must remember that God calls us to subject our
flesh for our protection, not as a punishment. His grace gives us
everything we need to say no to our cravings, our laziness and our
negative emotions (see Tit. 2:11-12). Unfortunately, not many women are
compelled to do this until after their first heart attack. My prayer is
that you avoid such a tragedy.

Lord demonstrated His unfailing love for us in fulfilling the promise
to “give [us] a new heart and put a new spirit in [us]” (Ezek. 36:26).
Let’s honor Him by taking care of our whole persons—body, soul and
spirit—including our hearts.

Read a companion devotional.

Kara Davis, M.D.,
is a doctor of internal medicine and a former assistant professor of
medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She currently practices at the Christian Community Health Center in the Chicagoland area, and she is also the
author of
Spiritual Secrets to Weight Loss (Charisma House).

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