In honour of February being Heart Month, I’m featuring several stories of people who are making great progress in adjusting their eating habits after a heart event.
Our goal is to provide hope and guidance to those still reeling from a recent cardiac scare. At first, many people feel paranoid about food and may overcorrect, switching to overly restrictive or bland diets, which can be unsustainable.
I hope these case studies help you strike the right balance between your health goals and enjoyment of food. (Plus there are some great meal and snack ideas buried within!)
Each participant volunteered in response to a request I made through my email newsletter and social media channels. I’m sharing just their first names, for privacy.
Most interviews were done over video chat, and I’ve edited the answers somewhat for brevity, but as much as possible, these are their exact words. You may see a few extra words in [square brackets]. That’s me adding those for clarity.
Meet Arlene, 53, who had a heart attack exactly four years ago, on this day actually. Our conversation was less about food and more about her prioritizing her mental health and how that helped her relationship with food.
See how she has learned to ignore diet talk, relax about food, and end up in a happier place overall.
Can you tell us a little bit about your heart event?
I had a heart attack February 24, 2018, at age 49, and then found out I have diabetes in August of 2019.
How did it change the way you feel about food?
I’ve always eaten fairly well. I’ve been dieting all my life: Weight Watchers, Wheat Belly… starving myself. I’ve always been motivated. I feel better when eating well.
In 2011 I said “That’s it, I really need to lose this weight.” I would exercise a lot and eat very little. I was always hungry.
Then when I had the heart attack I thought, “I must have done everything wrong.” I thought, “I don’t understand. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. Why did it happen? Maybe I should eat less. Maybe I should eat less carbohydrate.” We’re a society that wants to blame, and we’re the worst on ourselves.
Then when I found out I had diabetes, I thought, “Oh you’re a big failure now.” I didn’t tell people for over a year. I just didn’t want to deal with the judgy eyes.
I totally felt panicky about it. And diabetes combined with anxiety made me hungry. I always felt hungry but I felt like I was eating too much, too often.
[This is a common experience after being diagnosed with diabetes. Huge thank-you to Arlene for sharing that, because I bet it will help someone who reads this.]
How did you get past that?
Well first of all, I had to make some important decisions regarding my mental health and who and what I want to have in my life: people who want to lift me up. I need to be around things that are very positive. I come from a history of trauma, so that was important in my recovery.
It didn’t happen overnight, but really, that more than anything has made my heart happy. And it’s so intertwined with my relationship with food.
Over the years I worked with various dietitians, through the PCN [Primary Care Network] and AHS [Alberta Health Services], as well as a couple I connected with online. I worked through the Intuitive Eating book and workbook with one of them. Eventually it all started to click a bit.
I feel better when I plan meals and snacks at regular intervals, but before, I would feel guilty about eating so much. Eating less has been the mantra for so long. Those thoughts still come, but I’m better now at moving past them.
When I reach for chocolate or another favourite, peanut butter cookies, I still think, “Should I be doing this?” My heart attack came out of the blue, so there is still a bit of anxiety. In the beginning you think you’re having a heart attack every day. First it screams at you. It’s quieter now, but I think it will always kind of be there. It’s a work in progress.
It’s hard because diet talk is always around us – people talking about how “Carbs are bad” or “Keto this or that,” or even just eating rice cakes. And of course the heart attack made that worse.
But I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can say, “No, that’s not for me” or “This is healthy, good food for my body.”
Now when people start the diet talk, I just tune it out. The only thing I can control is myself. It used to make me feel bad, but now I think, “I don’t have the energy for that.”
But I’ve worked with four different dietitians now, and they all gave me the same message: “Relax. You’re eating the right foods.”
The mental health piece really helped with that. Otherwise I could go to ten dietitians and I wouldn’t hear the message I’m supposed to hear.
When it comes to the heart, I think mental health is key. That’s been the biggest change for me. Having a heart attack actually really changed my mental health for the better. When I look at where I was then versus now, my life feels so much lighter now.
[Yay! And happy heart-iversary Arlene!]
[The rest of the Heart Month stories are:
- How the 80/20 principle is helping John eat well after his heart attack
- Laurie on bacon, carrots, and not stressing about things after a heart attack
- How small habits add up to big change after a heart attack for Ron
- Ellen on eating well and being your best advocate when you have heart disease
Did this story resonate with you? Your thoughts welcome in our free Facebook group, the Sweet Spot Heart-Healthy Cooking Club. Feel free to join us!]