For Heart Month (February), I’m featuring several stories of Canadians who are adjusting their eating habits after a heart event.
The goal is to provide hope and guidance to those still reeling from a recent cardiac scare. At first, many people feel paranoid about food, fearful of eating anything they think may have contributed to the problem. Then we often see an unsustainable overcorrection, where people try to adopt overly restrictive or bland diets.
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 calls, and the participants had a chance to review and make changes. You may see a few extra words in [square brackets]. That’s me adding my two cents.
If you missed them, see the previously shared stories about John, Laurie, Ron, and Arlene.
Next up here is Ellen. She was in the midst of a 5-month trip through Southeast Asia in 2015 when it took a quite unexpected turn!
(Some of the story below is excerpted from her travel blog, and some is from our interview.)
Can you tell me a little bit about your heart event?
It was really out of the blue. I was only 62 years old and had a healthy lifestyle, with no risk factors that I knew of. But after nine episodes of chest pain, along with indigestion, we decided I needed to get checked out. I wondered about GERD (gastro-esophogeal reflux disease) as I had a lot of gut discomfort. I did not really think about my heart at that stage.
We were in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where a friend helped me self-refer to a GI specialist. Just a few minutes into my appointment, that doctor stopped me and said I should see a cardiologist to rule out heart problems, which was arranged for the next day.
The cardiologist himself performed an exercise stress test and echo-cardiogram. He wasn’t happy with the findings, so he recommended an angiogram, which showed that my main coronary artery was 80% blocked.
If I was standing, I would have fallen with a thud onto my chair. The diagnosis of coronary heart disease came as a complete surprise. He recommended a balloon angioplasty — right then and there — to open it up, and a stent to keep it open.
I wonder now how I could have confused the intense, 5-minute pains with the other ongoing discomfort. They seemed to blend together. With nine CPR trainings under my belt, you’d think it would have been clearer, but I never thought about heart disease and me.
What was especially confusing was that I did have a digestive system problem too so back I went after the stent for more help from the GI specialist. I went on a special diet for a couple of months and things settled down.
[Ellen also found out later that she has high lipoprotein (a), an inherited risk factor for heart disease.]
How are you doing now?
I haven’t had any cardiac symptoms since then, seven years ago, except significant fatigue, even now, in the evenings. I often just crash after dinner.
But I also was diagnosed about five years ago with sleep apnea because I was falling asleep a lot during the day (even when driving, yikes!). This is another risk factor for heart disease, I learned, so I now treat that by using a CPAP machine to help me breathe well while I sleep. The quality and length of my sleep is still not consistently good, but I continue to work on that. Nothing is simple!
As for activity, this has never been a problem. I like to move. I change my form of exercise from time to time to keep interested and now that I have osteoporosis, I walk much more.
How did it change the way you feel about food?
I didn’t have to radically change my diet as I love vegetables and whole grains, and I know a lot about nutrition.
I’ve always had a sweet tooth and I still do. If I have one cookie I need 100 cookies. And I love to bake! I eat them because I’ve had a hard day, or because I’ve had a good day.
So I’ve trained myself to like 85-90% dark chocolate and I don’t need much to feel satisfied. Now I try to avoid snacking on almonds, raisins and so on when I pass the kitchen pantry. I feel better when I don’t eat a lot of bread (and cheese) too.
I try to ask myself: Do I really want that food? Am I really hungry? Will a cup of tea instead be enough? If I am hungry between meals, I often have a piece of fruit with low-fat yogurt and that seems to work. Food choices are always a work in progress!
[While there is nothing wrong with snacking on almonds or a bit of cheese, you may also decide that you’d like to incorporate more vegetables, fruit, yogurt, or other foods.]
A lot of people say “I know what to do, I just need to do it.” How do you keep doing it?
It’s important to have healthy and delicious ingredients on hand. We have a tiny kitchen with not a lot of storage, but we manage. I have recently bought 5-pound. bags of pearled barley, brown rice, quinoa, farro, French lentils and black beans, which are really satisfying. I often sprinkle these cooked grains and beans into salads, soups or my morning veggies.
Prepping food ahead of time helps a lot as it’s easier not to just open the fridge and grab a piece of cheese frequently because “there’s nothing else to eat.” And I have discovered I love soups, especially ones that I can chew a bit, so lunch is easier now, with fewer decisions to make.
A lot of people struggle with a lack of time or energy for healthy eating. How do you manage that?
I’m a morning person, so that’s when I prep, washing lettuce and cutting salad vegetables, making homemade dressing and soups, and cooking whole grains or beans (in my pressure cooker).
My partner usually makes dinner and it’s really helpful that we both love our own cooking better than restaurant food. We’re on the same page when it comes to healthy eating, choosing organic when we can (especially local to support farmers here).
And I just baked a low-fat chocolate cake for Valentine’s Day and didn’t eat it all in one go! Yay me!
Do you have any other advice for people going through this right now?
I’ve had several health problems over the years, and I’ve learned that as a patient you really have to speak up and be an advocate for yourself. I always take notes when I visit a medical professional so I remember later what we discussed.
You have to be your own case manager. After all, you are the only person who is always there over the years. And you care the most about you being healthy, so ask lots of questions and understand your options.
Food choices are important for our health overall, not just heart health, but we may also have to deal with other health problems and we just do our best. Pat yourself on the back for being here, thinking about your own food choices and looking at what you can do to take care of yourself!
[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
- Four years after a heart attack, Arlene’s life is better than it ever has been
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!]