In honour of February being Heart Month, I’ll be 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.
While most interviews were done over video chat, Ron here (age 65) wrote up his thoughts, and I thought they were so good, I’m just bringing them to you as he wrote them. You may see a few extra words in [square brackets]. That’s me adding my two cents. Enjoy!
Can you tell us a little bit about your heart event?
It was June 10, 2021. I was working out at home when I started to feel severe pain in my chest that radiated up into my jaw. I sat for a bit and took my BP, which was 195/177, so my wife called an ambulance. Turns out a clot in the right coronary artery caused a heart attack.
How did it change the way you feel about food?
I was eating a lot of processed food, and I had never paid that much attention since I felt fine and have always been very active. But now I always read nutrition labels, and think about each meal in terms of trying to follow the balanced plate model for fruit and veggies, protein and whole grains.
How have you changed your eating habits since then?
I took a few minutes to take stock. I was a bit surprised to see how many things I’ve actually changed, or at least I’m in the process of changing.
Food was never really a source of stress for me, but mostly it turns out that was because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Now that I’m armed with a wealth of new information, I definitely look at what I eat through a new lens.
I’m back to feeling 100% in terms of stamina and energy, and I plan to keep it that way. I’m sure eating a more healthy diet is contributing to that, even though I still admit that for the most part I haven’t actually found that sweet spot where I really look forward to most meals.
However, on the plus side, I do like the foods I’m eating, so it’s not like it’s too much of a struggle for me. And of course, once and a while I CHOOSE to cheat, and that’s just fine with me.
[Note from Cheryl: While many people think of this as “cheating,” I like to challenge that framing. It’s just eating for different reasons – pleasure, connection, convenience – and that’s okay!]
So here’s a longer list than I expected about things I’ve changed over the last six months:
- Upped my Fitbit watch daily step goal from 10,000 to 15,000. I find the 15K a bit of a stretch, but I’m weirdly motivated later in the day to do some kind of activity if I’m 1 or 2K short of making my daily goal.
- I choose sodium-reduced versions of products (e.g low-sodium whole wheat Triscuits, low-sodium beef/chicken broth, low-sodium canned tomatoes).
- Every Wednesday I pick a meal and prepare it from your 30-Minute Heart Healthy Cookbook.
- I switched some meals from meat to non-meat (chili, spaghetti, lasagna).
- Swapped the BLT bacon & tomato sandwich to the Mary Berg FLT, which is made with marinated tempeh, spinach and tomatoes. That one is delish!
[That’s “Fakin’ Lettuce and Tomato. Here’s the recipe.]
- Stopped drinking 2+ litres of Diet Coke daily and changed to water or water with various liquid flavors. For times when I just really want a soda, I buy a 12-pack of cans. I drink two or three 355ml cans a week now, and that seems fine. Mostly diet, only because I find the regular excessively sweet. I don’t worry about calories, since I drink so much less of it.
- Switched out scrambled eggs three times a week to scrambled tofu with frozen peppers, frozen onions, fresh spinach and mushrooms. Seasoned with smoked paprika or curry powder.
- I look at packaged food nutrition labels in pairs of ingredients rather than in isolation. For instance, if there is more sodium than I would like, I see if it’s offset with more potassium. Ditto for fat vs lower sugar content.
- I eat a large, easy-peel navel orange every morning instead of orange juice.
- For snacks, I mostly eat no-salt-added mixed nuts instead of chocolate, low-sodium Triscuits instead of cookies.Sunday I made heart-healthy nachos while watching football on TV with low-sodium Triscuits, one leaf of spinach and one slice of cheese microwaved to melt the cheese. Then top with avocado and salsa. 9 Triscuits fills my plate, and they were really good.
- When heating leftovers in the microwave, I try to add spinach to the bowl and then dump in the chili/spaghetti/island tofu curry or whatever and then heat it. An easy way to add an extra veggie serving and I love spinach.
- I’m just learning how to cook properly, so I find there are lots of gaps in my knowledge in cookbook recipes. So if I like a dish, I’ve started making my own detailed instructions in a Word document that is becoming my personal go-to recipe book for heart healthy meals. Details like ‘use a whisk to stir this’, or ‘premix all the spices in a dish and add them all at once’. Stuff most people would know from experience, but I never cooked much before.
- Once a week or so, usually Thursday, we have a night where we might order a pizza, have a burger, or maybe make burritos with ground beef. It’s something I look forward to on a day that is usually particularly busy.
- We started meal planning using one of your templates. We do it on the weekend since we usually do groceries on Tuesday. No more “what’s for dinner” at 5 o’clock. My wife likes that too!
- Healthy snacks like fresh fruit, trail mix, nuts and low sodium Triscuits are visible and on the counter with easy access. We try not to have less healthy choices around, but if we do we put them high in a cupboard out of sight.
Could you eat this way for the rest of your life?
It’s still a work in progress, but I’m pretty happy with most meals so I don’t find I’m craving the “old” foods much. If I really want something, I just have it, as long as I stick to the 80/20 rule where I’m heart-healthy most of the time. I keep tweaking recipes to fit my tastes, so it’s unlikely I’ll revert to my past eating habits.
I vividly remember being in the ER, wondering what was going on, and that is something I really don’t want to repeat.
[Thank you to Ron and everyone else who has volunteered to share their story!
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
- Four years after a heart attack, Arlene’s life is better than it ever has been
- Ellen on eating well and being your best advocate when you have heart disease
Are there any items on the list that you aren’t already doing? If you find and adopt one idea from his list, we’ll call it a win. Join us in the private Sweet Spot Heart Healthy Cooking Club group on Facebook to discuss. I’m always happy to get your feedback.]