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Coronary Artery Disease: Reboot Your Eating Habits

Michael Capalbo lived mainly on dining in restaurants and taking out food.

“I just thought I was immortal,” says the 54-year-old Connecticut salesman. “I literally lived on burgers and wings and pizza and stuff like that.”

Then, in April 2020, while working at Walgreens, Capalbo suffered a massive heart attack caused by a complete blockage of a major artery. A pharmacist gave him an aspirin and called 911. Capalbo later learned that his heart had to come to life in the ambulance.

His near-death experience forced Capalbo to drastically change his diet. He gave up pizzas with red meat, bacon and fatty sausages. He said goodbye to one of his favorite guilty pleasures: Parmesan Garlic Chicken Wings. He stopped all other fried foods.

Capalbo is one of the 18 million Americans who suffer from coronary heart disease (CAD). It happens when the sticky plaque clogs your arteries and slows or blocks blood flow to and from the heart.

With his favorite foods banned, Capalbo had to get creative in the kitchen. He learned to cook healthy meals faster than a meal delivery. He still loves pizza, but now it’s homemade with a cauliflower crust – and no cheese. The grill has become a key appliance.

When you have coronary artery disease, eating a heart-healthy diet – low in saturated fat and processed foods and high in fresh produce and whole grains – is an important part of your treatment.

But changing your eating habits and convincing your loved ones to follow you isn’t always easy, says Sandra Arévalo, a registered dietitian in Nyack, NY, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“A lot of people are very traditional with their meals and they don’t want to make any changes,” she says. “And that’s the biggest obstacle. You have to be prepared to try new things.

Advice from a dietitian

Arévalo encourages culinary experiments. Whole wheat pasta or brown rice may provide different textures and tastes compared to their white counterparts.

“It’s like a taste shock,” she says of trying new foods. But with every bite, it “opens your mind a little bit to know that this is something new that you are going to taste.”

Changing your food tastes can take up to 30 attempts, says Arévalo. “The taste buds get what we call educated,” she says. “By tasting a little each time, that’s how you change your taste buds.

Arévalo, who speaks Spanish, often works with Hispanic families. A common challenge is that their diet can be high in starches, which can increase your triglycerides – a type of fat in your bloodstream. Likewise, white rice, a staple in Asian cuisines, increases your blood sugar levels faster than whole grains like brown rice.

“I have tons of families who, because it’s in the culture, eat too many starches at the same time,” Arévalo says of his Hispanic clients. “It is not difficult to find pasta, rice and potatoes at the same meal.

Try to limit your starches to no more than one per meal. If you have tacos for dinner, avoid the rice – the starch can come from the taco shells. Forget the sour cream, Arévalo says, and remove the refried beans. Instead, boil the beans until they are tender, then mash them to get the same texture.

Culinary tips from a gourmet

Mike Carroll Jr., who played football in high school and college, gained weight after quitting the grill and working as a graphic designer. At his heaviest, he weighed over 400 pounds.

The 52-year-old man, who suffers from coronary artery disease and heart failure, has already lost more than 100 pounds. By the end of 2021, he weighed around 300. Carroll, who lives in Wichita, KS, plans to lose 25 more pounds to be on a heart transplant list.

Like Capalbo, he’s a huge pasta fan. His favorite dish at the moment: kelp noodles. For rice, he prefers cauliflower rice. He replaced mashed potatoes with mashed cauliflower from the frozen section.

Carroll, who describes himself as a “foodie,” sometimes posts his meals on social media. He has become an ace with his air fryer because he prefers crispy foods – the crispier the better. With the air fryer, he can eat everything from chicken wings to turkey bacon without using oil.

If he’s cooking bacon, Carroll can use it to build a BLT, wrapping bacon, lettuce, and tomato in a low-carb tortilla instead of bread. Or he can air fry wings and pair them with vegetable noodles and corn kernels on the side. Noodles, made from zucchini, have a texture similar to pasta after boiling them a bit, he says.

New eating habits

Capalbo, who is “100% Italian,” has tried chickpea and black bean pasta since his 2020 heart attack. His current favorite carbs are brown rice pasta.

Capalbo now cooks mainly at home and only dines out occasionally. He loves salmon and orders it often, as well as it does at home. He avoids cream sauces in restaurants and suspects that there is hidden butter and other ingredients that make the restaurant’s fish so good. “It’s the frostings and the seasonings, you don’t know what they’re using,” he says.

Letting go of his old eating habits hasn’t been easy, admits Capalbo. “I used to have bacon on everything, I mean on everything,” he says. “If there’s anything I fantasize about, it’s a bacon cheeseburger.”

But his blood tests show that healthier eating pays off. Within 5 months of starting his new lifestyle, Capalbo’s total cholesterol went from 195 to 105 and his triglycerides dropped from 265 to 80. While cholesterol is only part of the heart risk, l The goal is to keep total cholesterol below 200 and triglycerides below 150.

Capalbo’s cardiologist told him that if he had been home alone when he had his heart attack, “I would have died”. When Capalbo woke up in intensive care, it was his teenage daughter who motivated him to review his habits. Along with his new diet, he quit smoking and started walking almost every day.

Capalbo’s daughter has since started college and he plans to accompany her down the aisle to her wedding one day. He hopes others with coronary artery disease will learn from his fear of health.

“I tell everyone, ‘Don’t be me. Be better than me, ”he says. “I literally had to die to understand.”

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