In honour of February being Heart Month, I’m featuring several stories of Canadians who are adjusting their eating habits after a heart event.
My goal here 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.
Meet our first volunteer, John (73). I hope his story gives you some helpful insights and ideas. Enjoy!
Can you tell us a little bit about your heart event?
On September 22, 2020 I had a heart attack and a stent put in. About six weeks after that I had a triple bypass for other arteries that were mostly blocked.
So now a little over a year later, do you feel like yourself again?
I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I did before. Something like this changes you, and I’ll always be looking over my shoulder, in a manner of speaking. I also have some daily reminders … a bit of soreness in my chest, especially when I cough or sneeze, and some occasional angina.
Did it change the way you feel about food?
Totally. I thought, “I must have done something to myself to cause this mess I’m in.” I had lots of time in bed in critical care – alone because of the pandemic – to think about it. You go through the list, “Exercise, stress, genetics, food…”
For example, I had a daily bad habit of eating a ham and cheese sandwich. That was haunting me. That’s the first thing that went.
I was open to changing my eating habits. I had to do something. I lived in fear that those three new arteries would clog up too.
[Note from Cheryl: If you need some clarity and reassurance about eating after a heart event, download my free e-book here.]
Do you still feel anxious about food?
I don’t feel that way as much as I did, but it’s always there at the back of my mind whenever I reach for something to eat. I can’t imagine anyone feeling totally relaxed about it.
How did you manage to change your diet?
I’m fortunate because I’m retired, so I have lots of time to work on it. I have great support from [my wife] Deb, who has always taken good care of me and she has been a vegetarian for two years now. I also have other great resources.
Deb and I had a good chat about food and drinking. I knew I had been drinking more than I should have. I enjoy a glass of wine, and three months after being alcohol free after the heart attack, my surgeon told me it would be okay to have a glass of wine a day. I’ve stuck to that.
I’m mindful of your 80/20 rule. If we visit family and there’s meat on the table, I eat it, but frankly, I look forward to Deb’s vegetarian meals.
And sometimes I do like having a bit of meat with these dishes, for flavour and substance. For example, one of our favourite meals in the past 6 months is a “bowl.” Quinoa or brown rice with vegetables. Sometimes I’ll add salmon to that.
[Note from Cheryl: They went on to describe last night’s bowl: quinoa, roasted cauliflower, broccoli, and sweet potatoes, and a sauce made with either tahini or peanut butter mixed with orange juice, extra-virgin olive oil, and homemade taco seasoning. Yum!]
But now I even like tofu, which I didn’t before. It used to seem slimy and tasteless, but Deb has started to bake it, so it has a crispy outer layer instead.
[Note: Deb added that she does this with extra-firm tofu and tosses it with cornstarch and olive oil first.]
Do you like the food?
My body likes vegan food now, but sometimes it does lack flavour. We’ve figured out to add things like chili powder or sauce.
I struggled with legumes at the beginning. Lots of gas. But after a while, I adjusted, and I can eat them now, no problem.
Honestly, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if my wife wasn’t such a good cook. It would be a big struggle since I’m not very good in the kitchen. I’m extraordinarily lucky.
Do you see any other benefits of eating this way?
It’s really hard to say. It’s hard to separate the factors that have impacted my health post-heart attack For example, I’ve lost weight – is it exercise, diet, or the surgery?
[Note from Cheryl: Some bodies lose weight more readily than others. Exercise and more Mediterranean-style eating can benefit your health whether your lose weight or not. Yay!]
Could you eat this way for the rest of your life?
I don’t really have much choice, but I do it willingly. It satisfies me. I might get a little hungry at night. That’s a struggle.
Do you snack in the evening if you’re hungry?
Yes. Lately we’ve been having popcorn followed by a clementine. It’s become a nightly ritual.
[Note – If you’re curious like I was… they’re cooking popcorn kernels in a microwavable bowl like this for about 3 minutes, then adding cooking spray, salt and nutritional yeast. Sounds good! And bonus… it’s a whole grain.]
Do you have any other favourite snacks?
We enjoy hummus and carrots with a glass of wine now, or sometimes homemade baked whole wheat tortilla chips. This is a big change from a big plate of cheese and crackers before!
How do you stay motivated?
I don’t really feel I have a lot of choice. I need to keep those highways clear! I am and will stay motivated.
For example, I love raisins and used to eat them by the handful. Then I read the label and saw the sugar content. Good God, there’s a lot. So that’s motivation.
But there are times when you go off the wagon and indulge; I don’t want to live like a monk. There are imprinted memories. I know what it feels like to have a bag of chips, a good cheese or a steak. They did taste good.
I’m mindful that diet can be a bit of a slippery slope. For example at Home Hardware in town they sell Kit Kat chocolate bars at the check out, and I always used a grab one whenever I went there. I don’t do that anymore.
On New Years 2022, I had roast beef for the first time since my heart attack. This summer I’ll likely have a lean beef burger after a game of golf. It’s okay as long as you keep that 80/20 rule in mind. And most times it’s more like 90/10, I think for a very good reason …
I’m not as hungry as I used to be, My work was stressful, so I used food and a bottle of wine to help with that.
But I don’t define living with food anymore.. Now it starts and ends with, “Do I want to live?”
[Thank you to John and everyone else who has volunteered to share their story!
The rest of the Heart Month stories are:
- How small habits add up to big change after a heart attack for Ron
- 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
Has a heart concern affected how you feel about food? Join us in the private Sweet Spot Heart Healthy Cooking Club group on Facebook to discuss. I’m always thrilled to hear your thoughts.]