One of the first places that a cardiac diagnosis starts to change the lives of women who have it is in the kitchen. Suddenly, it can seem that everything you now choose to eat will either help your heart, or kill you dead. After my daughter Larissa flew home after my own heart attack, for example, she wrote out a hand-written list (still up on my fridge door, by the way) sternly dictating, among many, many other food rules, things like: “From now on, only low-fat cheese, <20% fat!”
This was a problem for me at the time. Have you ever actually tasted low-fat cheese? It is a hideous food-like product. I pictured a dreary future learning to live on lentils and kale smoothies and other foods I do not want to eat. . . .
I have since learned that I was wrong. Making heart-healthy eating decisions is not only very important for my heart, but it can be delicious, too! And even better, a recently published cookbook suggests that heart-healthy meals don’t have to take more time or trouble than preparing food that’s not so healthy.
Cheryl Strachan, a Registered Dietititian who blogs at Sweet Spot Nutrition, has written a book called “30-Minute Heart Healthy Cookbook: Delicious Recipes for Easy, Low-Sodium Meals” that would make a useful gift for the heart patient in your life.
First, she reminds readers that making better food choices is just one way that heart patients can indeed influence their destiny:
“Staying active, managing stress, attending cardiac rehabilitation programs, and eating well have all been shown to reduce the incidence of future heart problems. These practices can also boost your energy and add joy to your life.”
Cheryl has spent much of her career working with local cardiac support groups and rehabilitation programs in Calgary, so she has a special place in her heart for heart patients. Her book focuses on three popular ways to eat: Mediterranean, vegetarian/vegan, and DASH (a low-salt/non-drug plan proven to reduce high blood pressure).
And her new book has become a bit of a family project in my own home.
My lovely daughter-in-law Paula, for example, spotted it when she and my son Ben were over for dinner recently. While Ben and I cleared the table and chatted in the kitchen afterwards, Paula curled up with her nose in the book. We barely heard from her for the rest of the evening.
So because she was already having trouble putting this book down, I asked Paula to help me review it.
Best part of the book? Paula said she really appreciated Cheryl’s overall attitude toward food.
This attitude is important in a professional food scientist. Some I’ve met can be pretty darned preachy about food rules – especially when preaching to heart patients. As one of my blog readers wrote to me after her own cardiologist-recommended consultation with her hospital’s dietitian:
“Since my heart attack, I’ve quit smoking. I’ve lost 15 pounds. I make sure to take all my new heart meds every day. I am working out or doing yoga four times a week. I’m trying hard to do what I can to help prevent another heart attack. But now they have given me a long list of foods I love that I am never supposed to eat ever again! Seriously?!”
By comparison, Paula liked the way Cheryl described what she calls “cameo appearance” foods:
“Cameo appearance foods are chosen for perfectly good reasons other than health: holiday cookies, a deli sandwich as you’re rushing to catch a plane, macaroni and cheese ‘just because’. Some people use the 80/20 principle (80 per cent of the time you’re eating with good health as the priority, 20 per cent is more about pleasure or convenience.
“Don’t think of any foods as good or bad. It’s about balance.”
By the time Paula got to Cheryl’s list of Five Principles of Heart-Healthy Eating, she started taking notes:
1. Focus on Satisfaction First: “If you’re eating in a way you don’t truly enjoy, it won’t last for long. Take time to explore and experiment with new foods and try different recipes. If you can find food that truly gives you pleasure, you may well continue eating this way for the rest of your life, and that’s the goal.”
2. Nourish Your Body: “Healthy eating is not about restriction. Instead, think about fueling your body and focusing on cardio-protective foods. A nutritious balanced meal or snack at least every four or five hours can help keep your energy up and your appetite in check.”
3. Let Go of Food Guilt and Relax: “Your diet doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, aiming for that is usually counterproductive. Labeling certain foods as ‘bad’ or ‘off-limits’ can cause a ‘restrict and binge’ cycle when we inevitably slip. Instead, give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods, including the ones you think of as ‘bad’. You may soon find they lose their power over you.”
4. Don’t Measure Your Success by Weight Lost: “Dieting for weight loss sets you up for failure. The pursuit of better health is about what you do, not what you weigh.”
5. Aim for Your Sweet Spot: “What I call the sweet spot is simply what works FOR YOU – food that you enjoy, that supports your health, and that works in other ways that matter to you, like convenience or sustainability. Getting to your sweet spot can take time, but it will be worth it. You deserve to not only survive, but truly live.”
As for me, the appeal of healthy, delicious and easy family meals that can be on the table within 30 minutes is significant. It means a manageable alternative to picking up (highly-processed, expensive, high salt, high sugar, low fibre) take-out for dinner.
Living in the heart of the Canadian cattle and beef industry, it’s not surprising that a Calgarian includes a chapter of meat recipes, like “Alberta Steak Salad With Roasted Baby Potatoes” (although Cheryl herself “rarely eats meat and almost never cooks it.”) For many years, heart patients have been warned to reduce or even stop consumption of red meat, yet controversial recent studies now suggest that those warnings about meat’s link to heart disease risk were based on “weak studies”, and that increased health risks of eating meat are “small and uncertain” (although, as many critics have correctly observed, there are still many valid humanitarian and/or environmental reasons to go meatless). Cheryl also reminds us that dietary cholesterol (the kind that for many years made cardiologists forbid eating eggs, for example) turns out for most people to have little effect on blood cholesterol levels. Best of all for us non-food experts, she addresses confusing dietary debates like these in Why Can’t The Experts Agree?”
I learned quite a few creative tricks in this book so far, and can’t wait to try out Cheryl’s Life-Changing Roasted Cauliflower recipe or her Hearty Mashed Potatoes (with three surprising added ingredients!) Her writing is clear and engaging, her style professional but definitely not preachy. As you’d expect from a high quality cookbook, the food pix are gorgeous. I only wish there were more.
As Cheryl writes, “Good food is part of a full life.”
Along with my two all-time favourite cookbooks for heart patients or anybody who wants to cook food that’s both healthy and delicious (Anne Lindsay’s “The New Light-Hearted Cookbook” and Bonnie Stern’s “Heart Smart: The Best of Heart Smart Cooking“), Cheryl Strachan’s 30-Minute Heart Healthy Cookbook deserves a spot in your kitchen.
Just ask Paula. . .
P.S. For the background story on how a yummy looking steak dinner picture ends up as the cover of a non-meat-eater’s book, read Cheryl’s story!
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: Speaking of good books for heart patients, please consider A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). You can ask for this book at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price when you order)..
Q: How have you changed the way you cook after your diagnosis?
My favourite heart-healthy appetizer, via Bonnie Stern: Sushi Pizza