May 28, 2013

60 Days to a Healthy Heart

Last July after a check up Allen was reported to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure and he was overweight.  Lot's of lessons in there.  Not the least being that compared to most everyone else he was a little guy.  Most of us carry way more pounds than is good for our health.  Also, you might note that his evenings and weekends are spent in hard physical work around the house or doing something active with the kids.  No sitting around watching television here.  And yet, he had added 30 extra pounds over the years.

Another good lesson is to ask how he got in such a precarious health situation?  Everyone who spends much time in our home knows we live a very healthy life style.  We are physically active and cook well balanced meals full of fruits and veggies.  We avoid processed and junk foods.

Allen's problem was two fold.  His job requires sitting at a desk, in meetings and in a car more than 40 hours a week.  Prior to his check up last year, he took part in no regular physical exercise.  Second, when not at home, he ate whatever happened to be in his path when he was with customers or on the road.  He reasoned that once in a while was no big deal.

For some time he had been feeling less energetic and from time to time had chest pains.  He had begun to snore and frequently took Advil for headaches.  With the blood report in hand, I set about to find a way to get him back to good health without dangerous cholesterol lowering medications.  In 60 days his HDL's were well above the minimum.  His LDL's were well below the maximum.  His weight was down.  Chest pains were gone.  And his energy level was up.

The first part of the plan was to get his full commitment.  Allen has a way of dragging his feet when it comes to food he doesn't care for and definitely wanted nothing to do with exercise.  Furthermore, he really hates having to limit things like dessert and stops at Chick-Fil-A.  I had to put on some tough love with this one.  I knew it would be good for him and that he could do it if he really applied himself.   When he asked if I could help him I told him only if he ate what I prepared, no matter what it was, and did everything in the plan.  Oh, and this was the big one... he had to do it without whining or complaining.  He signed on and I got busy making lists and menus and workout plans.

Exercise was the next step.  He had to work up to 20-30 minutes of cardio each day.  Stretching was also to be part of the daily routine.  He skimped on the stretching at first.  I didn't push him on it because I knew eventually he would feel the results and get serious.  And sure enough after a lot of pain  he got on board with the importance of it.  Exercise literally started out with one minute of running at a time and worked up to several miles a day.  In the beginning he fussed and whined at Emma (his assigned workout buddy) the whole time.  What a difference a little effort makes.  Now he loves running and puts in 5-10K at a time.  When he travels, instead of using it as an excuse not to exercise, he enjoys looking for interesting places to run.  On long travel days, when he used to stop for junk food, Allen now breaks up his 2-4 hours of driving time by finding a good place for a run.
Running together on the beach is an awesome way to start vacation mornings.
The one form of exercise Allen and I use to enjoy together was biking.  Since moving here in 2001 we gave it up as a family because we have a serious lack of family friendly places to ride.  His bike long since was passed on to someone else.  Last summer he invested in a new bike and began following his daily runs with long rides.  We live in a very hilly area so both running and biking are maxed out on the strenuous and cardio intensive scales.  

Another note on exercise is how his involvement got the whole family excited.  I have always been an advocate of exercise.  Just about everyday of my adult life has included some form of intensive exercise... running, aerobics, weight training or a stop at the gym... but my family never did get interested and if they did, it never lasted.  Fueled on by Pa's enthusiasm however, all the kids got into running.  By January Samuel all the way up to Kaitlin were training for a 5K race.   Which, incidentally, came on the weekend after Henry was born, so no one ran.

The important point here is 1- that dad's have a huge influence on their kids.  He never asked anyone to take up running.  They did it because he was doing it.  They mimic us.  If we live on junk food and a sedentary lifestyle we are setting our kids up for an unhealthy life.  2- when we get excited about something, our kids will, too.  Apply that to just about anything.  3- A family can really pull together to encourage each other for good, and it doesn't actually take much effort.  4- And there is always a place where we can improve.  Our kids have never sat around.  Just the same, they found a way to become even more active and build a lifetime habit that will serve them well.  And it put fun into Pa's exercise with a new family passion.  5- Their enthusiasm has encouraged a number of our friends who thought it looked like so much they are running regularly now and feeling the lasting health benefits of a more active life.

And think how that can be applied to far more important areas of life.  Take our personal relationship with the Lord.  Allen took up running for his own good.  His excitement spread to the kids. As the family got busy in running, first one friend took it up and then another friend and her family and another friend...

Imagine if we lived our walk with the Lord with such enthusiasm!  What could we do for the world?  I'm running out of time here so I'll let you think through that bunny trail on your own.
I personally don't think I'd want to be caught dead in that color, but I sure love seeing the girls take off together in the shirts Allen got for them.  
So anyway, the other part of the plan was diet.  The focus was on increasing foods that raise HDL  (that's the good cholesterol) and lower LDL (that's the bad stuff) and eliminating foods that increase LDL and hinder production of HDL.
Any fruit and vegetable can be beneficial to good heart health.  However some are especially good when trying to increase good cholesterol and reduce the bad.

* Spinach
* Oatmeal
* Olives
* Artichokes
* Cranberry
* Tomato
* Nuts
* Onions
* Garlic
* Peppers
* Fish (particularly salmon)
* Eggs
* Berries
* Okra
* Unsweetened cocoa powder
* Banana
* Pumpkin
* Legumes
* Olive Oil
* Avocado

What to avoid?

*  Animal products, including meat and dairy products
*  Processed foods.  If it has an ingredient list, we probably should not be eating it
*  Sweets and sugar products (this includes sugar substitutes which are often far worse than sugar)
*  Grains... especially processed white grains
*  Caffeine
*  Sodas
* Meals that come in bags... think fast food
* Fats and oils that aren't olive or canola oil

I wanted to pump as much of the good stuff into Allen as possible.  One of the ways I did this was to create a smoothie for him to start his days.  He was not a regular breakfast eater so this was also a good way to get energy into him for his morning workouts.  He loves this smoothie so much he is always telling other people about it.  As a result I get a request for the recipe almost every week.

The Spinach Smoothie

1 cup unsweetened cranberry juice, almond milk or coconut milk
1 banana
2 very big handfuls of spinach leaves
4 Tablespoons raw or unsweetened cocoa powder (good old fashioned Hershey's)
1 Tablespoon honey or sugar

Blend all very well.  Then add frozen fruit (I use a strawberry blend) until you get the consistency you like.  I use about a cup of frozen berries.  Some people like it more runny.  Allen likes his thicker, more like a milkshake.  It's all a matter of preference really.  This makes a large amount.  I have a huge Tupperware cup that is Pa's smoothie cup.  He will sip on it all morning.  

The ingredients seem like they wouldn't be very tasty but I am here to tell you, if you like a chocolate shake, you will like this.  If there is some that won't fit in his cup, the kids like to have the leftovers.  Carmella likes this so much, she has several a day.  (Minus the chocolate, which gives her a rash).  You will be full of energy after one of these drinks, too.    

And odd as it sounds, if you have pumpkin, avocado or a leftover sweet potato in the fridge, it is also an excellent addition to this recipe.  We bake our own pumpkins every fall and freeze tons of it for the rest of the year.  This can be added frozen right into the vita mix or blender.

Meals didn't really change much because I already cook with lots of leafy greens, fresh fruits and vegetables.  The only oils I use are olive and canola oil.  We already make almost all our food from scratch and the only grains we eat are whole grains, typically ground from wheat berries in our kitchen right before baking.  The biggest difference in our meals was that Allen started eating key heart healthy ingredients he used to pick out and push to the side of his plate.  He once commented on how delicious healthy foods were when you cleared your palette of the junk.

A typical days menu would look something like this.

A spinach smoothie

Breakfast:  Oatmeal made with 1/2 cup regular oats, 1 cup water, 1/4 cup dried blueberries and 1/4 cup sliced almonds

Lunch:  Spinach salad with beets, caramelized onions, orange slices, and chopped walnuts.  I try to serve a dish of fresh fruit with every meal.

Dinner:  Salmon brushed with olive oil, salt and pepper cooked rare on the grill.  I top that with lots of different things but one of our favorites is to saute garlic and onions in a little olive oil.  Then toss in some chopped tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and olives.  A sprinkle of fresh herbs and you are really looking at something delicious.  Baked sweet potatoes, some grilled zucchini and grilled pineapple are excellent on the side.

Snacks are usually popcorn with olive oil, raw fruit and cans of roasted nuts.

Allen's need to eat on the road several times a week didn't change.  But the choices he makes did.  At business lunches he traded out burgers and fries for salads topped with grilled salmon.  He requests that his salads be made with fresh spinach or field greens instead of ice berg and romaine lettuce.  If he must eat at a fast food restaurant he asks for oatmeal (yes, McDonald's oatmeal is very good) and changes the deep fried chicken sandwich for a grilled chicken salad.  And when he makes stops to fill up on gas, he grabs a bag of nuts instead of chips and cookies.

The effort brought great rewards.  In 6 weeks his sleep improved and snoring stopped.  The headaches and chest pains disappeared completely.  And the numbers?  Not only did he lose  those 25 extra pounds but his cholesterol came down to a beautiful 145!  And it all started with 1 minute of running and a spinach smoothie.
"If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health."  -Hippocrates


  1. Wow, this is fantastic! I've gotten into exercising regularly, (since dance is over for the summer) but I think I'll try some running too, after reading this post. :) I've never been a good runner, and have quite avoided the sport whenever possible. Maybe that can change though. :)

    I've always been a smoothie-lover, but the only spinach smoothies I ever tried were bland and strange. But seeing as there is cocoa in this one, it seems worth a try. :)


  2. What a great post!! So glad to hear he is doing so much better and you all are enjoying the benefits of some changes and such.
    I just started running again (why I picked summertime in FL I don't know why) and i"m loving it.