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There’s more to a healthy diet than tofu and rice cakes

Heidi Rice
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Post Independent
ALL |

RIFLE, Colorado – My heart sank when the dietitian on the cardiology unit came into the room just before we were about to leave St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction and go home.

It had been five days since my husband, Paul, had suffered a heart attack and had to have quintuple bypass surgery at the age of 43.

I just knew the woman was going to tell us it would be tofu and rice cakes for the rest of our lives.



“You need to be on a low-fat, low-sodium diet,” she started, handing Paul a stack of papers that included guidelines on how many grams and milligrams he should have of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.

I could see Paul’s eyes glaze over. He still hadn’t quite figured out how he’d gotten there in the first place. I’ll never forget the totally bewildered look he had on his face as he lay in the hospital bed.



What the hell had happened? He had just been skiing the day before.

What had happened was that he had a family history of heart disease in his family. Both his father, brother and uncle had also had heart attacks.

And although Paul did not want to go to the doctor when he initially had symptoms, it turned out that we were lucky to get him there just in the nick of time.

That was 18 months ago.

Since his heart attack, our lives have significantly changed. Obviously, medicines are required and have to be taken twice a day, along with keeping track of refill dates, but diet and exercise have probably been the biggest changes in our lifestyles.

Not that we ate a lot of unhealthy food before. In fact, I always thought we ate pretty well. Salad and vegetables were on the dinner plate, but we didn’t eat fruit, and meat was a staple in probably every dinner. We exercised when we felt like it, but it wasn’t a regular routine.

For me, the biggest change has been the diet. I love to cook – it’s a hobby for me. On the weekends, I’m a FoodNetwork junkie, watching the TV show to get ideas of things to make and try out new recipes. I think I’m attracted to cooking because it doesn’t involve sitting and staring at a computer – like I do all week – but is still a creative endeavor. And Paul, who loves a good meal, is a great guinea pig for my culinary experiments.

But after getting past the initial trauma of Paul’s heart attack, recuperation and learning about his medicines in the first few months, it was time to try and get our lives back on track and incorporate a new routine into our lives.

I began looking at food in a new way. Food to me now almost seems like a medicine – but not in a bad way. I’ve become more aware now that what you put into your mouth directly affects how you feel and the health of your body.

When we returned for a checkup with his surgeon two weeks after the surgery, I had a detailed list of questions for her about what Paul could or could not eat.

“I would prefer poultry or fish, but you can have red meat once or twice a week,” she assured me with a smile. “You don’t have to be militant about it. He’s doing just fine.”

And a subsequent blood test a few months later showed that all his numbers were good.

At first, changing Paul’s diet was a little daunting. We’re talking here about a guy who was born and raised in Wisconsin. A guy who grew up on bratwursts and cheese curds. We’re talking about people who wear rubber slices of cheese on their heads at sporting events, for God’s sake.

I have to admit that immediately following our return from the hospital, I was totally paranoid. I bought fat-free everything and gave away anything in our pantry that had any degree of sodium in it.

However, I have since learned that fat-free cheese tastes like crap and doesn’t melt.

I’d never counted fat contents or sodium before. Sure, I knew what was fattening and what wasn’t, but it was never a mathematical equation. I began subscribing to magazines like “Heart Healthy Living,” and purchased books that had heart-healthy low-fat and low-sodium recipes.

Initially, it took me more than an hour in the grocery store as I stood and read the label on every item I bought to make sure it didn’t have more than the requisite fat or sodium amounts. Calories and portions also had to be counted as weight control was another aspect of the new diet. Although he wasn’t on a low-carb diet, weight is an important issue for heart patients – and anyone for that matter – as it contributes to a number of diseases.

While Paul religiously went to the gym and worked out three mornings a week, I did my part poring over the cookbooks, studying and analyzing them to see where I could cut out fat and salt. It was almost like taking a college course. But to me it was a life or death decision, and I was going to do anything in my power to try and prevent another heart attack.

It took some getting used to, but I’ve finally gotten the hang of it. And you know what? It’s not half bad. The good news is that just because you’re on a restricted diet, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy all the things you did in the past. You can – only healthier. We still eat things like pizza, tacos, spaghetti, burgers and fries, beef stroganoff and fried chicken.

I just tweak ’em.

The secret is to substitute some of the ingredients and cooking methods for healthier choices – and most times you can’t even taste the difference! I make my own marinara sauce using fresh and/or salt free canned tomatoes, which I use on whole grain pasta or on a whole wheat pizza crust. I add soy-protein crumbles to spaghetti sauce or taco seasoning, and you’d never know the difference. Very lean burger is OK, and I use whole-grain buns and oven-baked fries – either from fresh potatoes or store-bought. (It’s not the potatoes that are bad, it’s all the salt and stuff you put on them.) No-salt ketchup is available. Lean cuts of steak are fine, such as top round, eye of round, sirloin and filet mignon – in moderation of course. French’s crunchy onion baked chicken is one of Paul’s favorites, as are homemade oatmeal bars with dark chocolate chunks.

I’m pretty sure I own every flavor of Mrs. Dash – a blend of spices that does not contain salt, yet adds loads of flavor.

I use egg substitute in a lot of baking recipes and when making quiche, egg sandwiches or scrambled eggs with (soy) sausage on the weekends for Paul’s breakfast. In fact, I recently had breakfast with a friend and decided to “cheat” and order real eggs and sausage. After a few bites, I thought I was going to be sick. My body was not used to the fat and grease.

And while we eat meat several times a week, we also go meatless on many nights.

Paul has adjusted well to his new diet. I make sure his lunch always includes a bowl of fresh fruit. A turkey, ham or roast beef sandwich (yes, certain lunch meat brands are approved by the American Heart Association) is served on whole grain bread with margarine (tub margarine – not stick) instead of mayonnaise and lettuce, onions and reduced-fat cheese. By the way, mozzarella and Swiss cheese are some of the lower fat cheeses that are fine in moderation. Low-salt chips, low-fat cottage cheese and some sliced cucumbers or carrots usually round out the lunch with a snack-sized bag that includes a handful of pistachio nuts (great for the heart!), unsalted sunflower seeds and some dark chocolate chunks.

It all sounds kind of complicated, but it’s not. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that life is different from before Paul’s heart attack, because it is – physically and emotionally. We’ve obviously become more aware of what we eat, and we try to incorporate exercise in our daily routines, even if it’s just a walk after dinner. And we’ve also became more aware of our relationship. I think we’re closer now than we ever have been in 15 years of marriage.

When you come that close to losing someone and you get a second chance, it makes you think.

Other things have gotten back to normal. Paul does all the work around the house that he used to. Work for both of us is the same, and we’ve fallen into a new routine.

The differences are the daily medications, the diet and just paying more attention to our lifestyles.

We’re thankful that things turned out the way they did 18 months ago, and now things are pretty much back to normal.

Life is good.


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