It Takes Heart-Part 6: A Heart Healthy Diet

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The crux of rehab was so simple: “Eat and exercise like your life depended on it.” It seemed to take all the guesswork out of the picture and make things that much easier for me.

Part of my recovery after open heart surgery included class time taught by various members of the cardiac rehab department. One session was led by Nancy McCaffrey, the Registered Dietician of the Oregon Heart and Vascular Institute's Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehab Center.


Diet and nutrition has always been of keen interest to me, and even though I felt I ate healthy, I was recovering from surgery, so I felt I should pay attention to what Nancy had to say. Needless to say it had a profound affect on me and I want to share the benefits of what I learned with you.

I've made some great contacts here at BT, and have enjoyed reading your training pages and goals. One common thread I see is the desire to lose weight, or to reach a desired weight by a certain time. I'm here to help. Obviously, in distance events, the last thing you need is excess weight, right? Well, I'm not what you call "Clydesdale material," but that doesn't mean I want excess weight either.


The day of my surgery I weighed one hundred sixty-two pounds. Seven months and two days later, as I stood at the starting line of the 2005 Seattle Marathon, I weighed one hundred thirty-eight pounds. That's a twenty-four pound loss. Some of that was muscle loss due to the fact that for three months I wasn't allowed to lift more than ten pounds. This was so my breastbone would fuse back together. But the majority of weight loss, in my opinion, was due to following the dietary guidelines laid out by Nancy, and that's what I want to give you.


Some numbers
The day of my surgery, blood was taken for tests, and the following numbers indicate where I was with regard to my cholesterol:

        Total Cholesterol = 166 (under 200 was my goal)
        HDL = 47 (35-75 was the target area)
        LDL = 101 (below 70 was my doctors wish)
        Triglycerides = 89 (under 190 was ideal)

As you can see, my total cholesterol was in a good place numerically, but the goal was to get all numbers at their optimum level. I was allowed to eat as I normally did for six weeks after surgery to gain back strength and to counter anemia. After the six week period I put Nancy's lesson into play.

By mid-June I began eating as I should, and on June twenty-eighth I again had blood work. Here are those results:

        Total Cholesterol = 148 (down18 points)
        HDL = 29.2 (actually too low)
        LDL = 94 (too high)
        Triglycerides = 125 (acceptable)

Notice that my total cholesterol had dropped from April, but HDL and LDL were not where they should be. Just keep in mind I only had two weeks between diet change and blood work but you can see changes were already taking place. Now check out my current numbers:

        Total Cholesterol = 110 (down another 38 points!)
        HDL = 42 (optimum)
        LDL = 54 (again, well below 70)
        Triglycerides = 68 (almost cut in half!)

It's only fair to tell you that I also take a statin for cholesterol, specifically Zocor. But before you say, "No wonder your cholesterol numbers are so good," I need to tell you that I'd been taking Zocor for about a year and a half prior to surgery and never had these kind of numbers.

I’m certain exercise played a part in the excellent numbers, but I credit the change in diet as the number one reason my results were so outstanding. Another by-product is body composition. You'd need only look at the before and after photos to see how my body reacted to a high intake of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and other such fresh and natural foods.


I am in no way a vegetarian (not that there’s anything wrong with that)—I still enjoy protein in the form of fish, fowl, or a juicy steak now and then. That’s another key to my eating; I traded red meat for fish and only eat red meats about twice a month. Fish has become a three times a week routine. It’s like the “anti-Atkins diet.” People have succeeded with the Atkins diet and I certainly don’t want to knock it. When I read that it could lower cholesterol as well as help you lose fat, I tried it; however, for me, it was the worst possible way to eat.

And now for the specifics.
Nancy's guidelines, relating to the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, are as follows:

  • Limit fat to between 15-20g total per day.

  • Limit sodium to 1500mg per day.

  • Eat fresh fish three times a week minimum.

  • Red meat should be eaten once or twice a month and the serving size should be about the size of two decks of cards.

  • Chicken can be eaten three times a week.

  • Eat between 4-6 servings of vegetables daily. I found the easiest way to do this is with a juicer. I make a vegetable juice made from carrots, celery, spinach, and garlic that's full of anti-oxidants.

  • Fruit servings should be at least 2-3. I don't juice fruit preferring instead to eat them fresh.

  • Whole grains should be eaten every day, about 6-8 servings. I eat brown rice, oatmeal, and 100% whole wheat bread to name just a few.

In closing, I just want to encourage all of you in your endeavors, and if my eating tips help you, great. The crux of rehab was so simple: “Eat and exercise like my life depended on it.” It seemed to take all the guesswork out of the picture and make things that much easier for me. If I was presented with a food that was high up on the food pyramid as opposed to the basics found at its base, I only had to ask myself, “Is this treat worth my life?” It’s helped me pass on things I would have said yes to before.


Having a foot long scar running down my left forearm and sternum helps remind me too. I’m confident that if you apply the same principle to your life, you too can have the same level of success as me. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or comments and I'll be happy to answer you as best as I can. Until next time, keep training.


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date: December 5, 2006


I love my family, football, tri training and racing, seeing heart patients smile when I share my story with them . . .


I love my family, football, tri training and racing, seeing heart patients smile when I share my story with them . . .

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