Well, H.P. and I expected this spring to be an exciting one, what with the release of The Gordian Protocol. What we didn’t expect was excitement in the form of spending my 40th birthday at the doctor with chest pains.
Heart disease runs in my family (as it does in so many)—it’s one of the reasons why I’m attentive to working out and eating healthy—and given that my own medical history involves a regurgitant mitral valve, we’d feared this was a harbinger of heart surgery to come.
Fortunately, after a few weeks of cardiologist appointments and uncomfortable waiting periods, we learned that while I do have a minor blockage, it’s not severe enough to merit immediate surgery, and the effects can be thwarted by a cocktail of medications and a change to a diet that emphasizes low-fat and low-cholesterol foods.
Happy Birthday to me! 😐
On the bright side, H.P. is getting a kick out of the culinary challenge. I’m lucky that I have a wife who not only loves to cook but looks an unappetizing diet in the face and says “I bet you this wind chime that I can make it work.” (She’s really into this one fancy, expensive, tuned wind chime. I don’t get it either.)
The single most unnerving part of the whole experience was that, despite my dedication to my health and diet, the blockage had still grown large enough for me to feel its effects, and so comparatively early in my life at that. For me, this was a wake-up call, so being the engineer that I am, I decided to research potential diets and go all in.
I know I’m bound to have readers who are going through something similar, so I wanted to share my findings and experience here in the hopes that some of you will benefit from it, too.
By far the most intriguing information that I found was that from cardiologist Dr. Dean Ornish, who has published a variety of books on both preventing and reversing heart disease through diet and lifestyle changes. When I read that some heart patients who followed his Reversal diet improved so much they voluntarily took themselves off the heart transplant list (and then researched that claim a little more because really), it didn’t take long for me to go “Sign me up!”
The book H.P. and I first went by was Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease which, among a host of exercise and lifestyle recommendations, lays out what is essentially a vegetarian diet with some additional restrictions, mainly against high-fat plant matter like nuts, avocados, and oils. Non-fat and low-cholesterol animal products like milk, yogurt, and egg whites are allowed, too. Given that cholesterol is found exclusively in animal products, the vegetarian-leaning diet didn’t come as a surprise, but I was definitely surprised that fish—generally regarded as a healthy meat—was excluded. This meant I couldn’t have sushi, which is basically a food group at House Holo. 😢
But I was determined to see this through.
Fortunately, the wide availability of heart-healthy foods on the market made it fairly easy to find foods that fit my new diet. There’s a trade-off, of course—nearly every low-fat version of a food compensates with increased sodium—but though I missed sushi, I discovered a whole new love for beans, pasta, berry medleys, and Greek yogurt.
And when I went for a checkup after a month on the diet, I found that my cholesterol had absolutely cratered. It was the lowest it had been in my entire adult life! Some of that can be attributed to my cholesterol medicine, of course, but it was also a sure sign that the diet was working.
There was another trade-off, though. A few weeks into the diet, my body began to feel the effects of such a dramatic dietary change, manifesting in the form of awful, persistent nausea. It was then that I thought it wise to take a step back from that extreme, to allow my body time to adjust.
Thus I picked up Ornish’s The Spectrum and Everyday Cooking with Dr. Dean Ornish. These focus more on his Prevention diet, which is less extreme and allows for a moderate amount of meat and fat. I’m still being cautious about the amount I eat, but now that I’ve put fish back on the menu (mostly in the form of sushi and canned tuna), I’ve begun to feel a lot better and think I’m on my way to figuring out a diet that’s more sustainable in the long run.
I’ll probably go back to the Reversal diet once my body has adjusted to the Prevention diet, but until then, here are some of the tastier low-fat, low-cholesterol foods H.P. and I have discovered.
Post Great Grains Cereal – H.P. and I weren’t big cereal eaters before this, but these cereals quickly became a new staple. They include nuts, so they’re a no-go on the Reversal diet, but they make a delicious breakfast/snack/dessert on the Prevention diet.
Daiya Cheddar- and Mozzarella-style Cheese Shreds – We’ve had some some disturbing experiences with vegan substitutes before (vegan sausage—NEVER AGAIN), but were pleased to find that this plant-based cheese substitute tastes convincingly like actual cheese! It’s on the higher end of the fat limits we’re trying to pursue, but it’s still excellent for satisfying cheese cravings.
Lightlife Black Bean Burgers – We loved burgers prior to this diet, too, and though this is too clearly bean-based to be anything like a good ol’ beef burger, it’s super tasty on its own merits. Franklin Farms’ Portabella Burger is a nice burger substitute, too, if you like mushrooms.
Skinny Girl Salad Dressings – Finding a suitable salad dressing was one of the hardest challenges of this diet because we eat salads all the time, and even the healthiest common-brand dressings are loaded with oils. These dressings, then, were a godsend because they’re the only ones at our local grocery store that are low enough in fat to satisfy our dietary requirements. (As an added bonus, they’re also sugar free!)
Yasso Chocolate Fudge Greek Yogurt Bars – We have to be careful with this brand because, though it’s generally healthier than other frozen dessert brands, some of its treats are higher in fat than we’d like. This particular bar, though, checks all our boxes while also allowing me to get a chocolate fix (something I can’t get with my beloved Ghirardelli chocolate bars because of the fat content 😔).
Oikos Triple Zero Greek Yogurt – I’d known about this from before my diet because H.P. practically drinks it, but once I started watching my fats, I found that it made for a nice healthy dessert, with a variety of flavors to keep it from getting boring. A lot of heart-healthy recipes also substitute mayonnaise with yogurt, so we keep a large container of the plain flavorless version for cooking, too.
We’ll add more treats as we find them! Until then, readers, what are your favorite heart-healthy foods?
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