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Not just a diet, but a change in lifestyle -- International program helps CHIP away at bad habits, learn heart healthy ways

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It's not about going to the doctor and getting medication to solve the problem, or going on a quick diet that won't last. It's about a lifestyle change.

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That's what participants in the CHIP program say. Twelve local people graduated about a month ago from the international CHIP, or Coronary Health Improvement Project, program, held in Detroit Lakes. They all joined for different health reasons, but learned it takes a lifestyle change to improve health.

"Everybody was all over the place," Connie Thompson said of those who participated in the program. She went for weight issues and because she recently had surgery for cancer and wanted to improve her lifestyle to not have to go through surgery again.

Other participants included Don Strom and Stacy Kremer. Strom said he joined because of high cholesterol, and Kremer said he did because of diabetes and for his wife's benefit as well.

According to the CHIP program, while people can't control genes, age and gender, the remaining 70 percent of health is lifestyle.

"It's not just diet, it's lifestyle," Harland Thompson said. Although he didn't go through the program this time, he said he plans to enroll this fall, along with his wife, Connie.

He said those living in poorer countries don't have the diseases American do because they tend to eat blander, simpler food.

"We have diseases of affluence," he said.

Strom agreed, saying they learned that people from other countries would come to the United States, change their eating habits and come down with diseases they hadn't had previously.

Participants said the difference with this program is that programs tell people how to change their diets or exercise, but it doesn't go much further than that. CHIP lasts 30 days and participants meet three to four times a week, learning good habits and encouraging each other.

The graduates are also meeting once a month now for alumni meetings to keep each other on track.

Organizers showed films, provided literature and cooked up sample foods at each meeting to show foods could still taste good even if they are healthier.

"You can eliminate all these things in life," Connie Thompson said of substituting healthier foods to reduce the risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure, etc.

"There were good foods to try each night," Kremer agreed.

Plants are key, they said. While some people feel meat makes the meal, Connie Thompson said people in the CHIP program are taught to "use meat as garnish, not the main meal."

While some may be worried about lack of protein, Harland Thompson said animals get their protein from plants, so "skip the imperfect protein and get it from the source."

He said the change in eating can also be fun because he and his wife are eating foods they haven't in the past, like trying mango for the first time.

At the start of the program, participants go through blood screening, and then again at the end of the program to see the difference in just one month. The average of the 12 participants at the Detroit Lakes program decreased in every category but one, the triglycerides, which, Strom explained, are the "garbage haulers," taking the bad "garbage" out of the system. He said participants were told the number will stabilize and decrease as the body's system stabilizes.

After a month, total cholesterol for the group decreased 8 percent, glucose decreased 9 percent, weight dropped 6.4 pounds, systolic blood pressure decreased 9 and pulse rate decreased 6.

"We're still on the diet. We've made it our lifestyle," Connie Thompson said of her and her husband Harland.

In the past two months, she said she has lost about 12 pounds with the change in diet. Strom said he has lost about 15 pounds, lowered his cholesterol 75 points and his blood pressure 15 points.

It's not just about the eating habits though. Exercise obviously plays a key role as well. Participants are encouraged to be active either two miles, or 30 minutes, a day.

"Just get yourself out there and get moving," Connie Thompson said.

She said she has decided to take the program a second time this fall to attend with her husband and a friend who couldn't make it for the session this winter. But, she said, it'll benefit her a second time as well.

"There's so much information. Just like a book, you get more out of it a second time around," she said.

Cost for the program was $225 per person or $330 for couples, which included the books, food and blood tests taken at the start and end of the program. Connie Thompson said compared to the cost of a stroke, heart attack or surgery, the cost of the program is well worth it.

"It's one of the best programs I've been through in 24 years," Kremer said. He said it was about eating foods people already eat, but cutting back on salt and sugar and getting back to the basics.

"Eat as much as you want, but you won't want to because you'll be full," he said.

To check out more on the program, go to www.chipusa.org.

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