Russell Simmons on how to "make your heart happy"

Russell Simmons takes a bow during the Argyleculture By Russell Simmons fashion show at Helen Mills Event Space on September 5, 2014 in New York City.

Fernando Leon, Getty Images

After decades of influencing American music, entertainment and fashion, the entrepreneur Russell Simmons is turning his attention to the heart.

He's has become a leading proponent of the benefits a healthy lifestyle--adopting a vegan diet and even writing a book last year, "Success through Stillness," on the benefits of meditation.

As a supporter of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Simmons has written the following column to highlight a health issue of special concern: the disproportionate toll heart disease is taking on African-Americans.


Make Your Heart Happy
By Russell Simmons

Happiness sits in your heart. But first your heart has to be healthy. That's harder for some Americans than others. As an African-American, my risk of heart disease is higher than the average American. So I took control of my heart with a vegan diet.

Every person should know his or her own weaknesses. Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women, and we have them earlier in life. And African-Americans have more severe high blood pressure and have more deaths from heart disease than Caucasians.

So sex and heredity are part of the cause. But society is also to blame. Fast food is a major source of saturated fat and cholesterol--in the form of double bacon cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and milkshakes--in the American diet. These foods can lead to heart disease, so you've got to stop eating them.

But McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and other fast-food chains also need to stop pushing them to consumers. Research shows that fast-food restaurants located in predominantly black neighborhoods have greater chance of marketing to children. Another study found that calorie and saturated fat intake was greater for black adults than white and Hispanic adults on days that they eat at fast food restaurants.

Fast food isn't the only problem. There's also the dairy industry telling Americans that "Milk, It Does a Body Good." It doesn't. Dairy products are the leading source of saturated fat in the American diet. That increases your risk of early death from heart disease. But milk marketers are creating ads specifically targeting African-Americans and Hispanics.

This kind of marketing is unfair because it creates health disparities. African-Americans suffer disproportionately from obesity, diabetes and colorectal cancer than other racial groups among Americans. Animal products increase the risk for all of these conditions.

And guess who pays? We pay with our lives--and our wallets. A recent study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said that from 2006 to 2009 "African-American men incurred $341.8 billion in excess medical costs due to health inequalities."

But you have the ability to change these health disparities. That power is within your grasp if you choose a vegan diet. It's what I do every day to keep my heart--and the rest of my body--healthy, and I've been doing it since 1999. Consistency is the only way you'll see results.

Science shows that African-Americans, specifically, can lower their risk of heart disease and other diseases with a vegan diet. In a study with African-American participants, those who ate a vegetarian or vegan diet--compared to those who didn't--had lower blood pressure, half the risk of diabetes, were also 43% less likely to be obese, and a 44 percent reduced risk for hypertension. That's critical.

More than 40 percent of African-Americans have high blood pressure. So simply beating hypertension is one of the best things we can do for our bodies. Dozens of studies show that a vegetarian diet is the best way to do that.

Even Kim Williams, M.D., who is president of the American College of Cardiology and happens to be African-American, began a plant-based diet in 2003 and radically improved his heart health. Now, he says he often discusses "the benefits of adopting a plant-based diet with patients who have high cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension, or coronary artery disease." This summer, he'll be talking about his recommendations at the Physicians Committee's International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine.

Plant-based diets can also help you fight some cancers (such as prostate and breast), stroke, and diabetes--the other top killers of African-Americans after heart disease. So going vegan is win-win-win-win.

February is both Black History Month and American Heart Month. It's time we change our history of heart disease and other diet-related diseases by changing what we eat. It's not always easy. Ups and downs are necessary. But if you take some of your daily effort and direct it toward eating a vegan diet, your heart's going to see an amazing return on your investment.