The Dish: Making the Change to a Heart-Healthy Life

Updated:May 14,2014

Fats - The Dish with Dr. Eckel Column (640 px)

This issue of The Dish features guest columnist David Hagedorn, a chef and food columnist for The Washington Post. David shares how a heart attack changed his life, especially his diet.   

Fats - Chef David H. (spot)As a professional chef and food writer, I understood the importance of limiting saturated and trans fats but I didn’t take the advice to heart. “Everything in moderation” was my credo to rationalize my love affair with butter. I even wrote an article extolling the virtues of Hollandaise sauce “as a condiment, not a beverage.” The problem was my moderation was not moderate; last spring, I had a heart attack.

The week before, my doctor had warned me that my total cholesterol had gone through the roof to 284. My LDL (“bad” cholesterol) was 168, HDL (“good” cholesterol) was 55 and triglycerides were 300. Plus, I weighed 183, too much for my 5-foot, 7-inch frame. 

“You’re fat!” my doctor told me. He recommended a drastic change in diet and prescribed cholesterol-reducing medication to get my total cholesterol below 200, LDL below 100, HDL above 60 and triglycerides below 150.

My doctor’s advice was hard to take. Meaty sandwiches glistening with saturated fat still beckoned at lunch; at dinner, I ate all of my dessert but just a bite of everyone else’s at the table and called it restraint.

That was on a Wednesday. On Thursday, I was in the emergency room with pain radiating down my left arm. On Friday, a stent was installed in my heart’s LAD (left anterior descending) artery, which was 95 percent blocked.

“You’re a lucky man,” the cardiologist told me. On Saturday, I went home. Message received, loud and clear.

Eating in restaurants was still a professional necessity, so changing how I ate at home was crucial. I started eating breakfast regularly (non-fat yogurt, 1 percent fat milk, bran flakes and fruit), removed starches as menu mainstays and supplemented with more vegetables. I substituted saturated fat (butter) with “better” mono and polyunsaturated fats in cooking (canola and olive oil), eschewed red meats for fish and reduced alcohol consumption.

I eliminated trans fats from my diet, except for those that occur naturally in some foods. That meant reading labels carefully; some foods indicated as “tran-fat-free” still list partially hydrogenated oils as an ingredient and therefore still contain some (less than 0.5 grams per serving) trans fats.

The satisfying crunch of fried food and the creamy richness of butter and cheese make them appealing. The trick was to use more healthful and flavorful methods of preparation to provide those payoffs: oven-baking rather than deep-fat frying; grilling, roasting and poaching instead of sautéing in fat; relying on herbs and spices for flavor instead of cream and butter; reducing portion sizes of meat and increasing portion sizes of vegetables.Fats - Pear Cherry Crumble (spot)

I used this strategy to refashion familiar comfort foods: new versions of chicken pot pie, and pear and cherry crumble passed the muster of a finicky foodie like me. I even transformed a fast-food chicken bowl into a healthful, hearty meal of oven-fried chicken nuggets, herb-infused mashed potatoes, roasted corn, full-bodied gravy and a sprinkle of low-fat cheese.

The results? After two months, my total cholesterol went from 284 to 186, LDL from 168 to 83, and I lost 16 pounds. That was six months ago. I fell off the wagon a bit during the holidays; I’m only human! A small slip here and there is OK, provided we quickly return to facing the fats and keeping our eyes on the prize: a long, heart-healthy life.

Fats and Oils

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