A Heartfelt Year

About a year ago, our family set out to make some heart-healthy diet changes. Based on diet changes recommended by Dr. Anabel Facemire, a cardiologist with Northwest Regional Heart & Vascular, we decided to give our kitchen a chance to improve our heart health.

This is the story of what we did…and what it did for us.

Small Changes, Short Timeline

One of the things that caught my attention while talking with Dr. Facemire was the notion that you can make small changes to improve your diet—and make a relatively short commitment to allow your taste buds to change.

With that in mind and a goal for lowering cholesterol in our sights, we took Dr. Facemire’s advice. A quick pass through the online Heart Age Assessment for my husband and me, and we could see where we needed some help.

We started by raiding WinCo’s bulk foods and trying a host of different legumes—pretty much a fancy word for beans. I also hit Costco for pomegranates, Pom juice and ready-to-mix kale salads. My enthusiasm was almost as full as my cart.

At first.

When the Going Gets Tough

We were hardcore the first month or so. Over time, if I’m being honest, some cheese has crept back on the menu. While we’ve greatly reduced our dedication to pizza, our teenage son never got the hang of drinking almond milk. He keeps some regular milk around.

We already ate a mostly meat-free diet, so we’re well-accustomed to meat substitutes. That said, we definitely expanded our diet this year to include more tofu, beans and nuts than before. I suspect that’s because it’s been too easy in the past to replace meat cravings with cheese. As we reduced cheese, we wanted something else with some “heft.”

Another thing we pretty much never sold our kids on was kale, other than the rare kale chips (easy to make in the oven or a food dehydrator!). But since they are huge fans of cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, I don’t press the kale salad on them…too hard anyway.

What Has Really Stuck

There are several diet changes we have embraced really wholeheartedly. Several things we have truly incorporated into our everyday lives include:

  • Garbanzos—Sometimes I make these from dry beans I buy in bulk. Other times, I’m too lazy and I buy them in the can. Either way, they are amazing simmered long and slow in canned diced tomatoes with a chopped onion, some minced garlic, a slosh of olive oil and a little salt to taste. My teen daughter is such a fan, she portions these out for brown-bag lunches.
  • Pomegranates—I dreaded dealing with this beautiful but tedious fruit. Then I watched a YouTube tutorial about how to get pomegranate arils out. To say this revolutionized my interest in pomegranates is an understatement.
  • Almond milk—Despite our son’s disinterest, everyone else seems to enjoy almond milk. We buy it by the almost-gallon now. This is our go-to “milk” for adding to coffee and eating with cereal. (We weren’t huge milk drinkers in the first place, except the aforementioned son.) That said, I will admit I don’t care for milk substitutes in most sauces. Instead, I tend not to make creamy sauces as much.
  • Ready-to-cook vegetables—Even though cut and washed veggies and salads cost more than making my own, I’m still a huge fan. I am light years more likely to serve a nice, big salad if I can whip open a bag and pour it into a bowl. And I really love the big bags of ready-cut broccoli and cauliflower from Costco.
  • Tom yum and curries—I keep a vegetarian tom yum paste and several types of curry pastes and powders on hand at all times. Using these as base flavors, it’s really easy to upcycle leftover veggies and pasta, add some diced tofu, and make a fast and healthy entrée. We make regular trips to the Asian supermarket Fubonn, located in southeast Portland.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

We didn’t do this just for “fun.” My husband’s cholesterol levels were high every year during his annual checkup. This was the “heart” of the matter for us—this and knowing we’d all be better off eating a more healthful diet.

So we were equally excited and nervous about our annual biometric screenings in October. Neither of us had improved in weight, so we couldn’t expecting any lowering in cholesterol levels from that.

But…drumroll…my husband’s cholesterol levels had improved in every single measure. Most significantly, his triglycerides had dropped by more than 25 percent—which means they are almost down to the normal range for the first time in more than a decade at least.

My cholesterol levels weren’t in a danger zone to begin with, but they too dropped slightly.

Among our other benefits, we’ve noticed a big improvement in how many total colds we had during 2016. And I used my allergy medicine only a few times this year, instead of nonstop, even during the spring and summer.

Where That Leaves Us

With such a marked improvement, my husband is sold on eating a mostly plant-based diet. He credits the change from milk to almond milk as one of the biggest contributors.

My teenage daughter says she feels healthier over all. She’s a huge fan of hummus and avocados now. Her twin brother—the milk-lover—loves when I make tom yum soup, and he’s more than happy to polish off ready-made Asian salad when I bring home a bag.

Their little sister thinks “coffee milk”—almond milk with a little flavored nondairy creamer—is the best treat ever. And everyone celebrating New Year’s Eve with us loved my husband’s vegan barbecue “wings” made from his homemade seitan.

So, with a little cheese now and then and a whole lot of interest in continuing to watch our health improve, I’d say our experiment has officially turned into a lifestyle. Our heart goals this year include continuing to emphasize plant-based foods, exercising faithfully (family gym membership means we better!) and working toward better sleep.

Wish us luck, and please know we are rooting for each of you as you take small steps toward big benefits for your hearts.