'South Beach' Heart Program

South Beach Diet, Dr. Arthur Agatston talks to Julie Chen
CBS/The Early Show
Four years ago, cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston first published "The South Beach Diet," which has eleven million copies in print, and led to a series of South Beach Diet books.

His latest is "The South Beach Heart Program: The 4-Step Plan that Can Save Your Life."

The steps? Eat right, exercise, get the latest diagnostic tests, and take medicine if you're found at risk.

Agatston discussed it on The Early Show Friday.

The book advocates what Agatston calls a healing approach to cardiac health, rather than a "plumbing approach."

""What I was taught in medical school and my cardiology training," he told co-anchor Julie Chen, "was that the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle were like pipes, and they built up with sludge slowly, and the clear answer was Roto-Rooter, ream it out before it closed. And we realized, that's not how it happens. It happens with small little pimples embedded in the vessel wall that don't have puss. They have cholesterol. And they're like little ticking time bombs. They can burst any time and cause a heart attack. The approach to those is not bypass surgery or angioplasty. We can heal them with lifestyle and medications. We need to be healing a lot more and doing less plumbing."

The four steps in the book, Agatston explained, are ways to prevent the "pimples" from popping and heal them before they pop.

"We're spending literally billions of dollars going after the wrong type of plaque, these big ones that are already healed," Agatston observed. "We have to see who's at risk, who's harboring these ticking time bombs, and then go after them."

Eating well is the first of the four steps Agatston spells out.

"The diet debates are over," he told Chen. "We're beyond the low-fat versus low carb debates. It's the right carbs, that's vegetables, whole grains, whole fruits, the right fats, Mediterranean oils, omega 3 oil in particular, olive oil, lean protein, plenty of fiber. And America has a society where we are literally undernourished. We are overfed, but we're not getting enough fruits, vegetables and natural antioxidants. The pills don't substitute for that. We have to eat better for our heart, but also to help prevent cancer, Alzheimer's, macular degeneration in general."

Step two is exercise.

The message," Agatston says, "is less is more. Just 20 to 30 minutes of walking a day makes a big difference. … We have to integrate exercise into our everyday life. We have to do it regularly. A little regular exercise makes a big difference for our heart and our general health. It's great to go to the gym but most Americans are not gonna do it and sustain that. And we also talk about core exercise: When we're sitting slumped over a computer all day, our core is weakening, our core muscle. That's why we have back pain and rotator cuff problems. That doesn't take long. You can do it at home and we explain how."

Step three: Get the latest diagnostic tests.

"We have to partner with our physicians," Agatston emphasized. "In general, men over the age of 40 and women who are post-menopausal, often over the age of 50, if there's any heart disease risk in the family, if they have risk factors, should begin with the advanced imaging tests and blood tests. The imaging tells us who's harboring these little ticking time bombs that can go off. The heart scan tells us if we have plack that's developing. It tells us the likelihood that we might have a heart attack and we can start preventing. If you're 45 and you're heading for a heart attack at 55, you are already gonna be having plaque in these potential time bombs, and you can prevent it."

Step four comes into play for people who have the "time bombs."

"One of the best kept secrets in the country," Agatston says, "is that doctors all over America who are practicing this approach of aggressive prevention are seeing heart attacks and strokes literally disappear from their practices. As a society, we have to prevent. If we only treat after the fact, the cost is gonna be prohibitive."

Step four is to take medications.

"If you're at risk," Agatston urged, "you shouldn't be shy about the medications. If you start a healthy lifestyle at a young enough age, you'll never need the medications, but once you're at risk, the new generations of medication are safe, effective, and they really help prevent. … It's usually a once-a-day pill for blood pressure, cholesterol, even for preventing diabetes."

To read an excerpt of "The South Beach Heart Program," click here.