How I Stick to a Heart-Healthy Game Plan

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 22, 2020
4 min read

By Jenny Petz, as told to Hallie Levine

For the first 3 decades of my life, I never thought much about my diet. Then, at age 32, I sat down to nurse my 8-day-old son and noticed that I was dizzy and that my left arm had begun to tingle. When I stood up, I collapsed. I was rushed to the emergency room. It turns out I had a heart attack. One of my arteries was almost completely blocked due to high cholesterol.

I’ve since learned I have a genetic form of high cholesterol. My doctors put me on medication. They also warned me that to see real improvement, I would need to dramatically alter my diet, too. Over the last 13 years, I’ve made some easy but important changes.

It shocked me to learn that at the time of my heart attack, my total cholesterol was over 300. Up until then, I’d never thought about my diet or exercise routine. I was very skinny and always ate whatever I wanted, which usually included a lot of red meat. But I was so frightened I went to the other extreme. I became a vegetarian, and cut out all processed food, refined carbs, dairy, and saturated fat.

I spent the next 2½ years measuring everything that went into my mouth. My cholesterol was great -- under 160 -- but I was miserable. It didn’t seem healthy to obsess over every morsel. I decided it was time to relax some of my eating habits.

Rather than cut out entire food groups, like meat, whole grains, or dairy, I decided to scale back on saturated fat and beef up my fruit and veggie intake. I discovered cauliflower rice, which is low in calories and packed with heart-healthy nutrients. I’ve also opted for dairy-free yogurt. This is more flavorful and is rich in probiotics that may improve heart health since they help lower blood pressure. When I throw burgers on the grill for my family, I make mine a turkey burger.

I’ve also made some easy tweaks when I cook, too. I’ve found a chocolate chip cookie recipe that replaces flour with chickpeas. (Some research shows that chickpeas can help lower cholesterol levels.) Tofu is a great source of heart-healthy protein -- I’ve found that if I toss tofu with oriental seasonings, coat it with cornstarch, and bake it in the oven, it’s delicious and crispy.

I’ll admit, I have my weak moments: I’ve never met a nacho I don’t love. When I splurge, I opt for comfort foods like cinnamon rolls or pizza paired with a good craft beer. The truth is, I love food. You have to live and enjoy a good meal now and then. But they’re a weekly indulgence, not an everyday occurrence.

If I get hungry, I’ll eat anything in front of me, so I try to only stock my fridge and pantry with healthy snack foods, like yogurt, low-fat granola, and fresh fruit. It’s tough not to have junk food with two teens, though. I try to buy single small packages of things like cookies or chips to limit the damage.

Exercise is key when you have high cholesterol, because it raises levels of your HDL (good) cholesterol and lowers triglycerides. Before my heart attack, I rarely exercised. Once I “graduated” from cardiac rehab, I felt confident enough to work out on my own at home and bought an elliptical trainer. Every day, I would ride it a little faster, harder, and longer. I felt a sense of pride going from 5 minutes to 10 to 15 to ultimately a full hour.

Now, I focus more on everyday activities with my kids to stay active. I do go to my gym two to three times a week for an interval training class. I also go for a 20- to 30-minute walk most days of the week and try to do something outside with my kids every day. Sometimes it’s a bike ride, or Frisbee, or throwing a softball around. But it feels less like work when it’s a family activity.

I have a high-strung, type A personality. But my doctors have made clear to me that stress raises my risk for heart disease. I tried anti-anxiety medications for a while, but I didn’t find them helpful. What does work? I make sure I take some time for myself. Sometimes I just sit on my couch and watch Netflix, or sometimes I unwind with a hot bath, or sometimes I just take some deep breaths.

Sure, it’s hard to stick to a heart-healthy diet and exercise plan, but I tell myself it’s all about the small, doable changes. It’s about doing the best you can.