IOTA, La. (AP) - A doctor's office visit 11 years ago served as Molly Clayton's wake-up call.
Then a personal chef living in Detroit, she went to see the doctor for flu-like symptoms.
The doctor "started asking me about my family's health history," Clayton said. "I told him that three of my four grandparents had heart disease combined with diabetes or cancer. The fourth had congestive heart failure ...
"He told me that was the worst family history he'd ever heard in his 30 years of practicing medicine. Then he told me I was a walking timebomb and I needed to watch my weight and make some changes or I wouldn't live very long."
Until that time, Clayton thought dying from heart disease or diabetes was just a part of getting older, especially in south Louisiana, where it seemed everyone she knew eventually died from the disease.
"I was only 23 at the time," she said. "I was scared. I knew I was overweight. I couldn't even climb a flight of stairs without being short of breath, and my cholesterol was off the charts, but I didn't know what to do about it. I remember hiking in Alberta (Canada), and I couldn't breathe and was sweating."
Clayton had no idea how to change her lifestyle but knew she didn't want to die young.
"I still wanted to get married and have children," she said. "I wanted to live a long and happy life, but he told me none of that would happen if I didn't get control."
Now 40 pounds lighter, Clayton, 34, works as a dietary manager at a Jennings nursing home twice a week and as an executive chef preparing heart-healthy pre-prepared meals at her own business the rest of the week. She also holds healthy cooking classes, helps with meal planning and gives supermarket tours.
She's also on a personal mission to fight heart disease by educating others on how to make better eating choices and exercise more.
"Research shows that 80 percent of the cardiac events in women are linked to poor choices involving diet, exercise and smoking," she said. "It's preventable if you eat healthy, exercise and know your numbers."
Clayton has been chosen as one of 15 women nationwide to serve as a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. Her story was featured in the February issue of Woman's Day magazine
"I am the only one out of the 15 who is not an actual survivor of a heart event," Clayton said.
But heart disease, diabetes, cancer and being overweight have always been a part of her family's history.
"My daddy owns a meat market and makes hot cracklins and boudin every Saturday morning," she said. "That was a hard lifestyle to change. I love food. I think about it all the time, and people here (Louisiana) talk about food as if it's a love affair."
With the right mindset, Clayton managed to look at food differently and is exercising more, and her blood pressure and cholesterol are under control.
"It's a life commitment," she said.
She's passing that healthy lifestyle on to her husband, Joey, and their four daughters - 7-year-old twins, a 5-year-old and a 4-month-old baby.
"They already know how to read food labels and what to watch for," she said. "We talk about sodium, hydrogenated oils and saturated fat."
As a rule, everyone must take at least one bite of everything on their plate.
"You have to at least take what we call a 'no thank you bite' at our table," she said. "You try it at least once, then if you don't like it, you say no thank you. Sometimes they like it."
Even her friends and father - a colon cancer survivor - are eating healthier, and her mom - a breast cancer survivor - has quit smoking.
She and her husband also recently began the American Heart Association's Go Red BetterU, a 12-week online nutrition and fitness program.
Information from: American Press, http://www.americanpress.com