Entertainment Tonight's Nancy O' Dell Fights Back Against High Cholesterol

Nancy learned that the tendency toward high cholesterol can be genetic.



Long before she became co-anchor of the popular television show Entertainment Tonight, Nancy O’Dell was an advocate for healthy living. Growing up in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, she competed in almost every high school sport and continued to maintain her active lifestyle after moving to Los Angeles to pursue a broadcasting career.

Today, the 48-year-old television host leads a busy life as an entertainment journalist, wife, mother, author and entrepreneur. In addition to her work on television, Nancy is involved in a variety of charitable causes and is committed to raising awareness of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which claimed the life of her mother, Betty, in 2008.

Nancy is also the creator of Little Ashby, Star Reporter, an interactive storybook featuring a child reporter who embarks on fun assignments, like covering Santa’s Big Premiere on Christmas Eve.

While going about her busy life, eating healthy and exercising on a regular basis, Nancy was surprised to learn after a routine physical in 2013 that she had high cholesterol, putting her at risk of future heart disease. Although her blood pressure, glucose levels and body mass index were all at healthy levels, her doctor cautioned that if Nancy wasn’t able to improve her cholesterol levels she might need to begin taking a cholesterol-lowering statin drug.

"My mom and dad both had high cholesterol and even as a college student my cholesterol levels were slightly high," Nancy says. "I thought that by eating healthy and exercising regularly, I had my cholesterol under control, but I was wrong."

Nancy learned that while lifestyle may influence cholesterol levels in part, especially with the consumption of saturated and trans fats, the tendency toward high cholesterol can also be genetic.

At her annual physical, Nancy’s total blood cholesterol registered 228 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)—the ideal total cholesterol should be less than 180 mg/dL.

"The doctor said my cholesterol was high and that I should try and lower my levels," Nancy says. "I asked my doctor what steps I could take to try and naturally improve my cholesterol levels and heart health in general. He recommended increasing my fiber intake and getting more cardiovascular physical activity." Other lifestyle changes that can help lower cholesterol levels include eating fruits, vegetables, low-fat and no-fat dairy products, poultry, lean meat, high-fiber whole grains, and fish; limiting saturated and trans fats; lowering your intake of sodium to less than 1,500 mg per day; and limiting alcohol to no more than one drink per day for women, two for men.

SMALL CHANGES ADD UP

Nancy started by making small lifestyle and dietary changes such as increasing her dietary fiber intake. Dietary patterns that are high in whole-grain products and fiber have been associated with increased diet quality and decreased risk of heart disease.

Although Nancy has always been an avid exerciser, she decided to increase the amount and duration of aerobic exercise she was doing. For lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, the American Heart Association recommends an average of 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity three or four times per week. Moderate physical activity includes brisk walking, water aerobics or gardening. Vigorous physical activity includes jogging or running, swimming laps or aerobic dancing.

"I wake up around 5:00 a.m. and walk or run on the treadmill for an hour each morning," Nancy says. "I use the time to catch up on television shows and movies that I need to watch for work, and it really makes the time go by quickly."

Nancy found that exercising early in the morning before work, while the rest of her family—husband Keith, daughter Ashby (7) and stepsons Carson (14) and Tyler (18)—were still sleeping was the best time for her to work out. And watching television while she works out makes exercise less of a chore.

"There are some mornings when I really don’t want to get on the treadmill," Nancy admits. "I’ll talk myself into working out for a few minutes while I watch one of my favorite television shows such as Homeland, and the next thing I know, I’ve been on the treadmill for an hour."

The multitasking mom also found that she was more apt to stick to a morning workout regimen than to try and exercise after a busy day at work.

"When I come home after a full day of filming, I’m too tired to exercise, and I’d much rather spend evenings with my family," says Nancy, who also makes healthy family dinners a priority.

"I prep and marinate meat and veggies the night before and then we grill dinner together as a family," she says. "We even grill salad—romaine lettuce tastes great after you add some Parmesan cheese and vinaigrette and cook it on the grill."

To help her meet her fitness goals and ensure she is working out at the right intensity level, Nancy uses a heart rate monitor when she exercises.

"I enter my height, weight and age, and the heart rate monitor measures how long I’ve worked out, the distance I’ve covered and how many calories I’ve burned," she says. "I had it on one night when I was playing tag with Ashby and our Yorkshire terrier, Buttercup, and found I burned more calories ‘playing’ with them than I had working out that morning!"

Nancy says that making small changes has reaped big results when it comes to managing her cholesterol. When she went back to the doctor this year, her blood work showed she had significantly lowered her cholesterol levels. "My doctor and I were both very pleased with the improvements," she says.

Despite her progress, Nancy realizes that maintaining good heart health will be a lifelong endeavor. Her sister Karen also has high cholesterol and is currently taking statins prescribed by her doctor.

"Karen’s doctor explained that cholesterol is the ‘cargo’ while lipoproteins are the ‘boats,’ Nancy says. "The more boats you have, the greater chance of some of these lipoproteins penetrating the arterial wall, leading to heart disease. Apparently, in people who are genetically predisposed to high cholesterol, their boats are smaller, and the best way to reduce heart disease risk is to make sure your boats are carrying the right cargo."

MAKING HEALTH A PRIORITY

In addition to her diagnosis of high cholesterol, Nancy says her mother’s battle with ALS brought home the importance of self-care.

"During my mom’s illness, I didn’t make the time to exercise regularly and my diet was far from perfect," she says. "Shortly before my mom died, I realized that if I didn’t take care of myself, I couldn’t be there for my family."

Today, Nancy makes her health a priority.

"My schedule can be very demanding," she admits. "I really try to live in the moment and enjoy life."

Understanding the new AHA cholesterol guidelines

Although heart disease is the number-one killer of women in the United States, it’s also 80 percent preventable, says Kathy Magliato, M.D., M.B.A, F.A.C.S., a cardiothoracic surgeon in Santa Monica, Calif., and president of the Greater Los Angeles County American Heart Association Board of Directors.

"I would love to see all women recite their cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels in the same way they rattle off their Social Security number," says Magliato, author of Healing Hearts: A Memoir of a Female Surgeon (Crown, 2010). "If you know these numbers, you own them, and they can save your life."

In November 2013, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology published new guidelines for the management of blood cholesterol. The guidelines were prepared by a panel of experts based on an analysis of the results of randomized controlled trials. The panel was charged with guiding the optimal treatment of blood cholesterol to address the rising rate of cardiovascular disease, currently the leading cause of death and disability in the United States.

"This is the first time since 2004 that the guidelines have been updated," Magliato says. "The new guidelines now look not only at cholesterol but also at a person’s overall risk of heart disease and stroke."

Magliato says this means that doctors are looking closely at not just total cholesterol levels, which ideally should be less than 180 mg/dL, but also blood pressure, glucose levels and body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat based on height and weight. (See What is BMI, and why does it matter? on page 19 to learn more.) Ideal numbers for adults are blood pressure, less than 120/80 mm Hg; fasting blood sugar, less than 100 mg/dL; and BMI, less than 25.

"We’re looking at a patient’s overall risk of heart disease and stroke, and the lifestyle modifications they can make to reduce their risk factors," Magliato says.

These modifications include eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts as well as limiting red meat, sodium and sugary foods and beverages. Being physically active is also important—at least 40 minutes of aerobic exercise of moderate to vigorous intensity (brisk walking, swimming, bicycling or a dance class, for example) done three to four times a week is recommended to help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

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