Heart Attack and Cardiac Recovery – Stop Eating Crap

pick your poisonAfter  bypass surgery, I was discharged with a green light to eat whatever I liked because I was extremely weak and anemic. I needed the calories, protein, fat, and iron found in the typical crappy American diet. It seemed rather enabling, but who was I to argue with the doctor. I did enjoy my fatty meals and desserts, but I also knew it couldn’t last forever; I had to stop eating crap! This post explains how I made that happen.

Like most cardiac patients, I believed my biggest concern should be reducing cholesterol. It makes sense to start here since most of us ended up on an operating table as a result of clogged arteries. It is also an easy place to start since most of us are on a statin such as Lipitor and get an immediate assist.

Although I truly believe in the benefits of statins and will likely remain on one for life, I also have a problem with them. They give a false sense of security. How many times have you finished a huge steak covered in cheese sauce and said “I guess I will have to double up on the Lipitor tonight”.  Adorable, aren’t you?

You Are What You Eat

If this is true, I was eating moron. I would estimate that I ate about 75% healthy and 25% crap for a number of years after my event. I could make myself eat pretty well at breakfast and lunch. Evenings and weekends were another story. If you have young kids like me, you end up serving and eating a lot of mac & cheese, pizza, and ice cream. And as proof that I am not the most responsible person, I began to eat worse once I started exercising. I figured I was working out, I could eat whatever I like, right?

In fact, the answer is no. The American Heart Association provides the following as a basic guideline for diet and cardiac health:

  • Don’t intake mass quantities of calories
  • Eat a variety of nutritious foods including vegetables, unrefined whole grains, lean proteins, and fish.
  • Avoid nutrient-poor food

Sounds sensible, and it is. But it also sounds extremely boring and like something my mother would tell me. I have a long history of ignoring the good advice of my mother.

The Pretty Pig

I needed to put some lipstick on this ugly pig called eating right. I stumbled upon Tim Ferris’ blog while looking for ways to get rich by working four hours per week. Although I haven’t pulled that off (yet), I did find a lot of very useful information regarding diet.

I was drawn to the experiments Tim describes that test the relationship between food and exercise and the impact on weight and muscle gain. I tried a couple of his experiments and learned some interesting lessons along the way. For example, gorging and heavy weight lifting in your mid-forties produces fat not muscle (I gained 10 lbs of neck fat). Fun experiment, but not quite so effective (or attractive).

With my added neck fat in tow, I decided to see what Tim had on weight loss as opposed to muscle gain. I tried the slow-carb diet. On the slow-carb diet, you basically don’t eat anything processed or white – sugar, flour, dairy. You do eat a lot of that same meals (over and over again) that contain a combination lean protein, vegetables, and beans. And the best part, you get a cheat day once a week to eat whatever you like.

I had pretty good luck combining this diet with a regular exercise routine. I lost a few pounds, gained a little muscle, and felt overall more healthy. It also helps that you don’t have to be great cook on the slow-carb diet. On the flip side, egg whites, chicken, broccoli, and black beans gets pretty boring after a month or two.

Cardio Caveman

I followed the basic guideline of the slow-carb diet for quite awhile. The only difference being that I eventually was up to about three cheat days a week. Knowing I needed to get back on track, I went in search of a new program to keep me engaged.

I found the Paleo diet. The basic concept here is to mimic the diet of our prehistoric forefathers. Somehow, we know that there was very little cardiovascular disease back in the paleolithic days. Therefore, reverting back to a caveman lifestyle will lead to improved cardiovascular health. Stepping back in time is not a big stretch for a hairy backed dimwit such as myself. It’s probably this same dimwittedness that led me to try the diet ranked dead last on The U.S. News & World Report best diets list.

With that bad news aside, I can tell you that I really enjoyed the Paleo diet. The concept of Paleo is to eat meat (a lot of it) fish, vegetables, eggs, and healthy fats. Do not eat grains, sugars, most dairy, or any processed foods. Basically, if you can kill it or dig it up, you can eat it. Did I mention you get to eat bacon?

The inclusion of significant amounts of meat and eggs in the Paleo diet will scare many cardiac patients off. Maybe rightly so. I set out with the goal of 30 days for Paleo. Partly because of my short attention span, but also because I know there are healthier options out there. What I found over the 30 days is the following:

  • I lost 9 pounds
  • I had more energy
  • I really enjoyed the meals
  • I was never hungry
  • My back got hairier

My Cardio Diet Top 10

As you can see, I like to try new things. That might be a polite way of saying I can’t stick with anything. Regardless, I am motivated to eat more healthy. My experiments keep me entertained and help me maintain focus. When I take the bits and pieces from cardiac eating guidelines and my various experiments, I am left with my Cardio Diet Top 10:

  1. Eat lots of vegetables
  2. Eat some fruit
  3. Eat lean meats
  4. Eat fish
  5. Eat eggs
  6. Limit dairy
  7. Eat the right carbs (complex)
  8. Eliminate/reduce sugar
  9. Eliminate/reduce grains
  10. Don’t listen to me (I’m not a doctor)

The top ten works for me and provides a lot of options and variety. Remember, I am not recommending you go out and eat a lot of bacon. I am only recommending that you find a way to eat healthy. For me, it’s my little experiments.

If you are looking for your own heart-healthy diet programs, a good resource is the best heart-healthy diets on The U.S. News & World Report. My next program will focus on the Mediterranean diet. The benefits seem well established and the menu seems like something the whole family can enjoy.

The full series of Zen and the Art of Cardiac Recovery Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Photo credit: Scott Ableman / Foter /Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Heart Attack and Cardiac Recovery Series

heart cloudsAs a survivor of both a cardiac arrest and heart attack, people often ask me “how are you feeling…you doing ok?” For several years, I usually just responded with “fine, doing great”. However, that question always reminded me that I was not doing great.

Even after getting a second chance at life, I hadn’t made many changes in my life to ensure I would enjoy this rare opportunity. The problem was, healthy living didn’t come naturally to me and I had no idea where to start. In fact, I was heading in the opposite direction.  Sound familiar?

After much trial and error, I have developed an approach to improving my overall health and it finally seems to be working.  I will share my approach in a four-part series I call “Zen and the Art of Cardiac Recovery”. The series outlines the steps I am taking to simplify my life, exercise, eat right, and reduce stress.

Lost, Broken Down, and Out of Gas

I didn’t start out with a plan. As with most things I do in life, I knew the end goal (improved cardiac health in this case) but I had no idea how to get there. Imagine if someone asked you to go on a road trip. Most people would plan a route and gas up the car before leaving. Not me, I would jump in the car and start driving in a general direction with the hope of getting there.

Sure, I would have an adventure in front of me and probably experience some pretty cool things along the way. I would also end up lost, broken down, and out of gas. Even if I got there, I would be a mess upon arrival. While this approach can be fun, it is also exhausting and many times results in failure….or a heart attack!

So knowing that, you may ask “why is this guy writing about a cardiac health plan?” Well, I’m not quite the irresponsible manchild I was at 41 when my cardiac event occurred. I finally realized the need to take things into my own hands, and coincidentally, a plan developed.

What I am about to outline is not easy. Changing the way you think and live while balancing family, work (notice how I put that second), and life can seem daunting, especially if you are in the early stages of your cardiac recovery. Or, maybe like me, you were just bound by the pleasure of your vices. For years, I rationalized my bad habits and postponed good habits:

  • I will quit smoking when I am 20…30…40.
  • I will start exercising when I quit smoking.
  • I will start eating healthy when I start exercising.
  • I will get healthy when my first child is born.
  • I will get healthy when my second child is born.

I knew this was ridiculous behavior, especially with my genetic history. Yet, I continued to do nothing to change. Whether you are trying to prevent your first heart attack, or you are recovering from you third, the first step is easy: Make the decision to change and then commit.

Roadside Assistance

The Zen and the Art of Cardiac Recovery series is based upon my own experience in changing the way I think and committing to a healthier life. Very little of this happened in the first four years after my event. I guess it took me a little while to figure out I had a role in determining the success and longevity of my recovery. Here is my basic plan and the topics of this upcoming series:

  • Simplify your life – Clear the distractions and focus on what is important.
  • Stop eating crap – Experiment with healthy eating.
  • Get off your ass – Start moving, slowly at first, but start moving.
  • Relax – Personally, I find this one the hardest.

You may be in the early stages of your cardiac recovery and find all of this a bit overwhelming. Or like me, you could be several years into your recovery and looking for way to shed your manchild ways. Either way, it is important to take the first step. You may want to just pick one area of focus, start slowly, and build towards a healthy lifestyle.

Keep in mind I am a cardiac patient, not a doctor. Should you decide to start make significant changes to your diet or exercise regime, talk to your doctor first. I do so, but only because my wife makes me do it.

Next up: Simplifying your Life

The full series of Zen and the Art of Cardiac Recovery Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4

Photo credit: aivas14 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)