John Hale's grandfather died at age 43 of a heart attack. Three of his mother's seven brothers and sisters also died from heart disease. In January 2004, after yet another uncle died from heart problems, it dawned on him that he could be next in line.
At 250 pounds on a 6'1" frame, John Hale, 35, of Elwood, Ill., admits that he'd been eating like he didn't have long on Earth. For breakfast he'd down five eggs, eight pieces of bacon, hash browns fried in oil, and three pieces of toast "with butter smeared all over."
Obesity weighs on the heart
All that grease is like napalm to the heart. High-fat diets and oversize portions add weight, which bombards the body with excess cholesterol. That cholesterol begins lining the arteries, causing a gradual narrowing, which damages the heart muscle, said Gerald DeVaughn, MD, a cardiologist and president of Cardiology Medical Associates in Philadelphia.
Obesity is a risk factor in cardiovascular disease, especially for young men, but where you carry fat on your body can also be a good predictor of heart health. Being "apple-shaped," with extra fat on the belly, can put you at a higher risk than someone with the fat distributed around the hips and thighs.
Extra fat cells can also lead to type 2 diabetes, itself a risk factor for heart disease.
Even if you don't reach your ideal weight, every little bit can help. According to the National Institutes of Health, losing just 10% of your total body weight can lower your risk of heart disease and other conditions associated with obesity.
Heavy kids, heavy hearts
While fat-clogged arteries have traditionally been more of an adult issue, rates of obesity and high blood pressure among young people are also soaring, according to researchers at University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, where 20% of students studied were overweight or obese.
Being overweight or obese can hurt the heart independent of its effect on arteries. It makes the heart work harder and compromises its functioning.
A survey by researchers at Laval University's Heart and Lung Institute in Quebec City found that the hearts of obese people are situated higher in the chest cavity than those of normal weight people, because of their elevated diaphragms. Obesity can also disrupt the heart's electrical system.
Avoiding a heart attack
Terrified that he wouldn't live to see his kids grow up, Hale joined Weight Watchers, cut his portions, and upped his intake of fiber-rich foods.
He dropped nearly 60 pounds from his 6'1" frame and now weighs about 190 pounds. As a baseball coach for his 12-year-old son, Hale is able to run laps around the field without worrying about overexertion.
"My doctor didn't recognize me right away when I returned for a visit," he says. "He told me my heart is in much better shape."