A Heart Healthy Lifestyle: How it happened to us

To the best of my memory, we arrived at our current heart healthy lifestyle in three steps: two major life events combined with a bit of self-education.

In March of 2009 I was getting by on a diet of cold cereal, Lean Cuisines and Kashi bars. This had been my go-to meal plan for a little over ten years. Even two years with a chef as boyfriend had been unable to break my addiction to highly processed and rarely real food. March of 2009 is when I met Oliver; six weeks later he moved in (and by May 2011 we were husband and wife). His passion for cooking and his horror of Lean Cuisines quickly began to chisel at my frozen food devotion. Within six months my taste buds had changed enough that I could no longer eat a Lean Cuisine without cringing at each bite's intense amount of salt.

We spent Christmas that year in New Orleans with Oliver's family. When New Year's rolled around we could feel the added pounds from too many parties and too many po' boys. It was time to take our work outs more seriously. I suggested we give the gym a try; Oliver resisted saying that we were fine working out at home and in the park. By February he relented and we signed up for a two week trial membership at our local 24 Hour Snap Fitness.

It was that week that we received an unexpected and devastating phone call. Oliver's Dad, with whom we'd just spent a week in New Orleans, had died of a heart attack in his sleep. He was only 57. It was his first heart attack. Just weeks earlier he'd been to the doctor for a stress test and seemed okay. How could this have happened?

When we returned to Atlanta after the funeral our food goals became more defined. It was no longer enough to set our standard at "real food" we needed to learn about "heart health". Defining "heart healthy food" lead to a maze of vague nutrition claims and mixed results from studies. In the end I decided to my trust in Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver and Jamie Oliver. Their books were the beginning of our self-education. We're still reading and learning about foods, their sources, their benefits and their detriments.

Today, our family standards for heart healthy eating are as follows: high fiber foods (most often in the form of black/ pinto beans and dark leafy greens), whole grains, never fast food, avoidance of CAFO meats, no highly processed foods (no Goldfish, no Lean Cuisines) and avoiding anything that has sugar (or corn syrup) in the first three ingredients. Weekday breakfast has been the biggest challenge; after two years of searching we have found only ONE breakfast cereal that does not have sugar in the first three ingredients. It's name will give an idea of how tasty it is; it's called "Twigs". Our biggest weakness remains bacon. We love bacon.

The trial gym membership turned into a full membership. We go three times a week, most often together, and stay for 30 to 45 minutes. We work out hard and focus on getting our heart rates up. On days that I don't want to be there I find myself repeating "use it or lose it". I'm proud that my devotion to the gym is not fueled by vanity; it's fueled by a real desire to be active and clever well into my 90s.

As our lifestyle has become more committed and refined I've found it hard to press the importance of heart health on those around me. When I do talk about these things in person I come across as preachy.  I hope that knowing the history of why we live the way we do will help others consider living the same way. It worries me that so many people live their lives as if a heart attack (or diabetes) can't happen to them. It is my hope that this blog will serve as inspiration for the little ways that we all can make our lives a little healthier.