Laila Ali: Going the distance against heart disease
Given that heart disease has nearly knocked out several of her relatives, former women’s boxing champion Laila Ali is treating this medical menace like an opponent in the ring.
“Heart disease runs rampant through my mother’s family. My aunts and maternal grandmother have high blood pressure, heart disease contributed to the death of my maternal grandfather, and one of my mother’s two brothers has diabetes,” says Ali, the youngest daughter of boxing great Muhammad Ali. “I do not want to be the next in a long line of people in my family with heart disease.”
|Former women’s boxing champion Laila Ali says that as a teenager, she thought “junk food” was a food group.|
Laila Ali, 33, is particularly interested in fighting heart disease because of its prevalence among African-American women. The American Heart Association says 47 percent of African-American women over age 20 have heart disease. Ali has worked with the association to promote walking as a form of exercise.
Heart disease is deadly and expensive. It’s the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more than 616,000 lives in 2007. In 2010, the total costs of heart disease in the United States were estimated at $444 billion, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Treatment of heart disease accounts for about $1 of every $6 spent on health care in this country.
Ali, a former contestant on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” discusses her quest for heart-healthy living with InsuranceQuotes.com.
InsuranceQuotes.com: Do you have any theories as to why heart disease is so prevalent in your family?
Laila Ali: There’s no denying your genes can affect your heart health, but in my family, lifestyle appears to plays a big role, too. Food has always been a big part of my family’s life. It’s the common denominator in my family’s history of heart disease.
My mom’s family hails from Louisiana, a region that’s known for food that’s absolutely delicious, but isn’t always heart-friendly. The food is filled with saturated fats because it’s fried, rich and sugary.
In addition to “fried everything,” my mother’s family has always enjoyed dining on the breads, cakes and pralines synonymous with Louisiana. They eat a lot of junk.
InsuranceQuotes.com: Do you eat those foods, too?
Ali: I did. I had my fair share of sugary sodas, fried and fatty foods when I was growing up. I thought “junk food” was a food group when I was a teen, and I’m thankful that hasn’t taken its toll on my health. Luckily, I woke up in my early 20s and started taking better care of my heart.
InsuranceQuotes.com: What sparked your awakening?
Ali: I had the realization that heart disease was attacking every corner of my mother’s family. I also realized that food seemed to be an issue, since everyone who had some form of heart disease had terrible diets, too. So I decided to revamp my eating habits and my heart’s destiny. I knew if I didn’t do something, I’d end up with some form of heart disease because the odds weren’t in my favor.
Heart disease, including stroke, is the leading cause of death for African-American adults, killing nearly 100,000 annually. And African-Americans are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. I didn’t want the way I eat to increase my risk even more, so I started the tough process of re-learning how to eat.
InsuranceQuotes.com: How did you “re-learn” to eat?
Ali: I worked with a nutritionist to learn how to fuel my body, not just fill up my stomach. Even though I didn’t have high blood pressure — and still don’t — I have to be careful because of my family history of heart disease.
I had to be patient, because it’s hard to reshape your relationship with food. It took some time to break bad eating habits, but now eating healthy is second nature.
Of course, I did the obvious and cut out junk food and fried things, but I also realized things that seem to be healthy might not be. I also became an avid label reader. I cleaned out my kitchen and got rid of things that weren’t natural or organic, like boxed mac and cheese or things like that. I replaced those foods with fresh fruits and vegetables.
InsuranceQuotes.com: What else do you do to keep your heart healthy?
Ali: I exercise every day. I make sure to always do something like go to the gym and do the treadmill, lift weights, ride a bike or jog around my neighborhood. I love Pilates.
I also have routine physicals to keep tabs on my blood pressure and heart health. Because they’re busy caring for their families, women don’t always make their health a priority. That’s why I try to stress the importance of women doing all the right things for their hearts and health so they can enjoy a long, healthy life with the family they care so much about. It’s imperative to talk to your doctor and watch numbers like your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.
InsuranceQuotes.com: Do you ever try to alter the diets of your family members who have heart disease?
Ali: All the time! I frequently remind my family that they don’t have to compromise taste for health. I host a lot of holidays and dinners at my house, and no one realizes I’m serving a healthier version of favorite foods. For instance, I substitute organic brown sugar in place of refined white sugar and olive oil or applesauce for fats. I usually wait until after they’ve said how good the turkey or dessert was before telling them it’s good for their heart and their taste buds.