HEALTH: Coronary Artery Disease: Reboot your Eating Habits

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Michael Capalbo used eat mainly in restaurants and take-out.

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

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

His near-death experience forced Capalbo to radically change his diet. He gave up red meat, bacon, and greasy sausage pizzas. He said good-bye to garlic parmesan chicken wings, one of his guilty pleasures. He stopped eating fried food.

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

With his favorite foods banished, Capalbo had to get creative in the kitchen. Capalbo learned to make healthy meals faster than ordering a meal delivery. He still enjoys pizza, but now it’s homemade with a cauliflower crust — and no cheese. Grills have become a crucial appliance.

When you have CAD, a heart-healthy diet — low in saturated fats 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 do the same is difficult, according to Sandra Arevalo, a Nyack-based registered dietitian and spokesperson for Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

” “A lot of people are very conservative with their meals and don’t want any changes,” she said. That’s the biggest obstacle. You have to be willing to try new things.”

A Dietitian’s Tips

Arevalo encourages culinary experiments. Brown rice and whole-wheat pasta can have different textures and tastes than their white counterparts. It’s like trying new foods. But with each bite, it “opens your mind a little bit to know that it’s something new that you’re going to taste.”

Shifting your food tastes may take as many as 30 attempts, Arevalo says. She says that taste buds become “educated”. “By tasting a little every time, that’s how you change your taste buds.”

Arevalo, who speaks Spanish, often works with Hispanic families. A common challenge is that their diet can be heavy on starchy foods, which can drive up your triglycerides — a type of fat in your bloodstream. Similarly, white rice, a staple in Asian cuisines, raises your blood sugar levels faster than whole grains like brown rice do.

” Many families eat too many starchy food at once, as it is a part of their culture,” Arevalo explains to her Hispanic clients. It’s easy to find potatoes, pasta, and rice in one meal Try to limit the amount of starchy foods you eat to one meal For tacos, skip the rice. The starch can be found in the taco shells. Arevalo suggests that you leave out the sour cream and save the refried beans. Instead, boil the beans until softened and then mash them to achieve the same texture.

A Foodie’s Cooking Hacks

Mike Carroll Jr., who played football through high school and into college, packed on the pounds after he left the gridiron and worked a desk job as a graphic designer. At his heaviest, he weighed more than 400 pounds.

The 52-year-old, who has coronary artery disease and heart failure, has already lost more than 100 pounds. In late 2021, he weighed around 300. Carroll, who lives in Wichita, KS, plans to shed 25 more pounds to get on a heart transplant list.

Like Capalbo he loves pasta. Kelp noodles are his current favorite. For rice, he prefers cauliflower rice. He has swapped mashed potatoes for mashed cauliflower from frozen food aisles.

Carroll describes himself as a foodie and sometimes posts his meals to social media. His air fryer is his secret weapon. He prefers crispier foods, so he’s become an expert. He can fry everything, from chicken wings to turkey bacon, without oil.

If he cooks bacon, Carroll may use it to build a BLT, wrapping the bacon, lettuce, and tomato inside a low-carb tortilla instead of bread. Or he may air-fry some wings and pair them with vegetable noodles and corn kernels on the side. After boiling the noodles, they will have a similar texture as pasta.

New Eating Habits

Capalbo, who is “100% Italian,” has tried pasta made with chickpeas and black beans since his 2020 heart attack. Brown rice pasta is his current favorite carb.

Capalbo cooks most of the meals at home, and eats out occasionally. He loves salmon and often orders it, as well as making it at home. He avoids cream sauces in restaurants and suspects there’s hidden butter and other ingredients that make restaurant fish taste so good. He says, “It’s all the glazes and seasonings. You don’t know what’s being used.”

It was difficult for Capalbo to give up his old eating habits. He says, “I used bacon on everything. I mean everything.” “If I fantasize about anything, it’s a bacon cheeseburger.”

But his bloodwork shows that healthier eating pays off. Within 5 months of starting his new way of life, Capalbo’s total cholesterol dropped from 195 to 105 and his triglycerides plummeted from 265 to 80. While cholesterol is only one part of heart risk, the goal is to keep total cholesterol under 200 and triglycerides under 150.

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

Capalbo has a daughter who is now in college and plans to walk her down her aisle at her wedding. He hopes other people with CAD learn from his experience.

” I tell everyone: “Don’t be like me.” He says, “Be better than me.” “I literally had to die to figure it out.”

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