The Lifestyle Change Your Heart Deserves

My Grandma’s second bout of fluid buildup within a month motivated me to create this exhaustive guide on taking care of one’s heart and health, so she may be able to live a longer and healthier life.

Fiona Sommer
Nov 18, 2019 · 13 min read

Have you ever been gripped by the sheer fear that someone you love is going to unintentionally end their life, and soon if something doesn’t change? Yesterday afternoon, I had a pretty rattling reminder of what that feels like. I truly don’t want to speak, or write, negativity into existence.

But I also don’t want to ignore the reality of what’s happening and bury my head in the sand, which happens to be one of the many talents that have been passed down for generations in my family.

When backing up and taking a look at the broader picture, it seems to be a talent that has been passed down through generations in families all across America. We Americans, largely, share the tendency to bury our heads in the sand.

We tuck our mental illnesses into our closets, right on top of the pile of skeletons. We turn up our Alexas to drown out our nagging partners while scrolling through Facebook to prove just how much of crap we don’t give.

We drive our Tahoes and Land Rovers and insist that the smog of air pollution is actually just fog or haze from the scorching heat. We explain, “Really, it’s just a coincidence that its presence lingers.”

We pass by that man; no, that woman; no…he; no…she….it? Does it matter?! We pass by that human being on the street, that stranger that we’re supposed to feel empathy for. We see them being harassed….loudly, and it’s clear that it’s because they’re different. There’s a group of them, so we nervously search for another route to nonchalantly detour before things escalate.

We do nothing. So many of us are far too busy doing nothing to do anything at all.

I’m Pretty Sick and Tired of Doing Nothing

My Grandma’s been sick for a long time. She’s had type 2 diabetes since I was just a kid, and I can’t ever remember a time that she took care of it properly. Several years ago she ended up in the hospital, wheezing, trying her hardest to gasp for just one single gulp of air.

The problem was that she felt like she was drowning, even when there wasn’t a single drop of water to be found. She must have thought she was losing her mind, feeling as if she were fully submerged in the depths of the ocean when she could clearly see she was actually sitting in her recliner.

That’s what happens when your heart initially begins to fail; blood and fluid begin to fill your heart and lungs. My sweet Grandma felt like she was drowning because she was; it was just happening from the inside out.

We talked about that today, and how her life is very seriously at risk here if she continues choosing to eat Chinese takeout and pounds of bacon. When I say we talked, what I mean is that I talked while she interchangeably interjected with “mmm-hmm” and “oh yes”.

The only southern term missing from her barely admissible conversation holders was “bless my heart”, which is ironically just the blessing she needs.

When facing her growing lack of apathy and declining cognitive function, my original plan was to wait until everyone was out of the house so I could burn it to the ground, providing me with the opportunity to rob my family blind of the insurance money.

This would allow me to then kidnap my Grandma and run away to a faraway land where I would build us a cob house and take my place as her sole caretaker until she took her last breath.

There were only four problems with my master plan:

  1. The insurance money may or may not come through. With nearly 50 million Americans falling below the poverty line, and more than double than the number living dangerously close to that line, I’m not dense enough to assume that anybody’s home owner’s insurance is current and paid in full.
  2. While I know a surprising amount about building cob houses, I would be kidding all of us if I implied for one second that I had the drive or desire to take on that task.
  3. I don’t exactly have the proper sociopathic tendencies that one would require to simply burn down a house, particularly not one that provides shelter for multiple family members of mine.
  4. I’m well aware that these are just the manic and reactive thoughts that try to take over my mind in times of extreme stress. Props to my personality disorder for that bag of fun.

Once my reactive thoughts and I came to terms, I realized that I had to take action. Fortunately, I live close enough to my Grandma that I’m able to do that with minimal disruption to my daily routine.

Before the rest of that household knows it, they’ll have a trifold board tacked to the kitchen wall with gaudy shimmering letters spelling out the title of “Grandmama’s Plan to Live and Thrive”. Hey, there’s got to be something bright and uplifting about the board that will give her a long list of do’s and don’ts that she should integrate into her life so strictly that it soon becomes a habit.

When researching the topic and putting all the information together in an easy heart health plan, it became harder and harder to deny the fact that I, also, would greatly benefit from making similar changes with only a few minor tweaks.

The changes that she needs to incorporate into her life aren’t only beneficial to those struggling with heart complications, or even diabetes. In fact, the best diet to address her congestive heart failure and diabetes is pretty darn close to the diet I should have already adopted, and stuck with, to address my Hashimoto’s disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome.

The necessary changes for both of us would allow for only a few slight deviations to the Paleo diet; coincidence? I think not. You may be surprised to learn that the Paleo diet has proven to be beneficial to several other aspects of our health, including:

  • lowering blood pressure;
  • reducing the risk for stroke;
  • reducing low-density lipoprotein levels;
  • the increase of certain vitamins including A, C, and E; and
  • weight loss

That being said, I went out in search of the best diet to address both of my Grandma’s medical issues, which allows for a few dairy products. After spending a lifetime adding a stick of butter to everything, she was relieved to learn that she could keep using it sparingly, so long as it is unsalted. You’ve always got to look for that silver lining, right?

I’m a Debbie Downer, so I don’t tend to give people an option; I spill the bad news first. Frankly, it’s a brilliant tactic when you think about it. This way we can at least part ways on a high note. Be forewarned that you should expect this from me about as often as you would expect to see a solar eclipse.

You Know, You Really Shouldn’t Be Eating That

Starting off the heart health plan is an extensive list of things none of us should be eating, for Grandma’s sake. She does a fine job of incorporating most of the foods that she should be eating, but she really struggles with avoiding the foods that are making her sick and putting her at a very high risk of developing other diseases.

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Photo by Léo Roza on Unsplash

Congestive Heart Failure, Stroke, Hypertension — Oh My

These are just some of the health issues that a diet high in sodium can cause.

Now before you get your panties in a wad and kick me off my soapbox, give me just one gosh darn minute here. As a fat person, I’m the last chick you’ll find intentionally shaming my fellow fat people. We get enough crap as it is. You’re in charge of your own life, so you do you.

But, and this is a big but, if you’re one of my family members and we have literally started playing Russian Roulette with your life, I won’t hesitate to step in and be the one who jerks a knot in you and tells you to get your crap together.

Without further ado, if you or a loved one is in dire need of cutting out a large chunk of sodium in your life, here’s all the crap that you should be avoiding.

  • boxed food (i.e. macaroni and cheese, Hamburger Helper, blueberry muffins, stuffing, etc.)
  • butter and margarine (regular or salted)
  • buttermilk
  • breadcrumbs
  • canned goods
  • canned soups (regular)
  • casseroles
  • cheese (American, cheddar, cottage, cream and Muenster)
  • croutons
  • frozen dinners
  • frozen vegetables (pre-seasoned or buttered)
  • meats and seafood (canned or frozen)
  • MSG
  • olives
  • packaged carbs (i.e. saltine crackers, cookies, graham crackers, etc.)
  • pickles
  • pork
  • processed meat (i.e. lunch meat, bacon, sausage, jerky, bologna, hot dogs, spam, pepperoni, etc.)
  • pudding
  • sauces and condiments (regular)
  • salad dressings (regular)
  • salt
  • sauerkraut
  • stocks and broths
  • vegetable juice

Sure, a Diabetic Coma Would Allow You to Catch up on Some Rest

Realistically speaking, that’s probably the single silver lining that a diabetic coma has to offer. It’s not exactly one of those deep sleeps that anybody is hoping to fall into. To prevent that from happening, there are a few additional foods that my Grandma needs to avoid.

All of these foods are high in either sugar or carbs, which turn into glucose. Glucose is blood sugar. So….all of these foods are high in, what ends up becoming, sugar in the long-haul.

  • agave nectar
  • bread and pasta
  • corn
  • dried fruit
  • flavored coffee drinks
  • french fries
  • fruit-flavored yogurt
  • full-fat dairy products
  • honey
  • juice
  • peas
  • potatoes
  • pretzels
  • punch
  • soda
  • sugary breakfast cereals
  • sweet potatoes
  • sweet tea
  • syrup
  • yams

These Are a Few of Our New Favorite Things

It’s not all bad, I swear. At least not for my Grandma, who was just telling me earlier how hard it was going to be to give up gravy. Luckily for her, I included a low-sodium gravy recipe that she can use to pour over her favorite dish of liver. She also benefits from living on an island where she has easy access to fresh fish and shellfish.

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Photo by Ratapan Anantawat on Unsplash

If liver and gravy isn’t your idea of the perfect dish, I can’t blame you. There are plenty of other low-sodium and low-sugar options in the list below. If you’re that hard-pressed to find a few options that you enjoy eating, then it’s time that you cultivate your taste buds, my friend.

  • beans and legumes (dried or frozen)
  • butter or margarine (no salt added or low-sodium)
  • cheese (goat, swiss, ricotta, fresh mozzarella)
  • eggs
  • fresh fish and shellfish (Check labels for sodium, salt, and saline. Pay attention to phrases like “cooked in a ___% solution.” Choose a low percentage.)
  • fresh fruit
  • fresh vegetables
  • healthy oils (i.e. olive, coconut, sunflower, safflower, etc.)
  • herbs and spices
  • homemade gravy
  • liver
  • lean beef, veal, lamb, chicken (Check labels for sodium, salt, and saline. Pay attention to phrases like “cooked in a ___% solution”. Choose a low percentage.)
  • lemon juice
  • unsalted nuts

Give Yourself an Inch, Just Don’t Take a Mile

I know that if I don’t give my Grandma at least a little wiggle room, then there’s not even a fraction of a chance that she’s going to adhere to any roadmap I may draw out for her. Personally, when making any extreme lifestyle change I think it’s important to find the loopholes to make the change stick for you. People fail too often when they throw the baby out with the dishwater, as the saying goes.

When making this list, I was a bit stricter with her than you may be with your own list. But one must make greater limits when the loved one in question mindlessly eats an entire pound of back within a 24-hour period. In her defense, I know it’s hard to remember to stop eating all that sodium after the effects have started to dramatically impair the functioning of her brain.

Indulge, but Keep It to Once a Day

  • diet sodas
  • light sour cream
  • low-sodium condiments, dressings and sauces
  • yogurt

Cheat, and Cheat Well

Just remember, it’s important that we set ourselves limit. In the case of Grandma, who regularly guzzles half a dozen sodas in a day, her end goal will be to allow these cheat foods to each sneak in only once per week.

  • 1% or skim milk
  • brown rice
  • cornmeal
  • frozen yogurt or ice cream
  • low-sodium soup or broth
  • oatmeal
  • processed meat (i.e. bacon)
  • quinoa
  • tomato sauce

Don’t Get Screwed by the Hidden Heart Killers

If you’re at all like my Grandma, then you could likely due with the occasional reminder of what you can and cannot have. In my Grandma’s case, she does a far better job at managing her eating habits when she cooks it herself, unless there’s bacon in the house. She won’t think about it and will choose a buffet or Chinese restaurant for dinner one night, and won’t count the sodium and carbs that she can’t see added to the dish.

Again, your list of reminders may look different from the one below. However, many of these tips and tricks are often forgotten about by those eating a heart-healthy diet. We all know that once your plate gets there, you can’t send it back unless you want your food tampered with. At least that’s how so many of us justify eating the ranch dressing and croutons we forgot to request to be left off of the salad.

If you follow these recommendations, you’ll be that much closer in your journey towards heart health.

  • Request to have your meat or seafood broiled, baked, roasted, grilled or steamed
  • Avoid ordering veal, liver and anything parmigiana. It is usually fried.
  • Skip the croutons and bring your own low-sodium dressing.
  • Limit yourself to just one diet soda when eating out at restaurants.
  • Remember that most appetizers (chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, calamari, and mushrooms) are typically fried.
  • Nachos are tortilla chips; tortilla chips are made from tortillas, which is a type of bread. So loaded nachos, even if it’s minus the sour cream, cheese and chili, is a no-go.
  • Request steamed veggies to make sure they aren’t swimming in butter.
  • Steer clear of Chinese restaurants, Mexican restaurants, pizza joints, buffets and any restaurant with an attached drive-thru. It’s usually way harder to find a truly healthy option at these sodium saturated hotspots.
  • When eating at restaurants serving up good ole’ country cookin’ (think Cracker Barrel), be intentional to go with somebody who will want to help you choose healthier options and remind you of hidden sodium like the gravy that automatically comes on pretty much everything.

Just In Case You Wanted to Go the Extra Mile

Changing our eating habits isn’t the only thing we can do to help our hearts. I mean, obviously, I hope that anyone who may have a serious heart condition is regularly seeing a medical professional and adhering to some sort of care plan that was established. If you are experiencing clear signs of heart disease and aren’t seeking medical care, I highly recommend that you make that your first step.

But in addition to the medications you may be prescribed and the dietary changes you will be making, there are a few additional things you can do to take some stress off of your overworked heart.

As they say in the world of tarot, “Take what resonates and leave the rest”.

A Little Greenery Never Hurt Anybody

If you’re feeling particularly motivated to make sure you’re doing everything within your power to help your heart on the path to health, you might want to throw a few herbs into your daily routine. This is an easy one to do, as herbs have the potential to become your new salt now that you’re on this sodium purge.

The best herbs for a healthy heart are:

  • bilberry
  • cayenne
  • garlic
  • ginkgo biloba
  • hawthorn

Supplements are another way, one that your doctor may very likely recommend, that you can get the leg up on protecting your heart from further damage. The short list of supplements I’m talking over with Grandma and her doctor are vitamin B1, carnitine, goldenseal, coenzyme Q10, alpha-lipoic acid and creatine.

Incorporating essential oils is the final holistic measure that I’m having her take to get her heart, and health, back to a stable condition. I know, I know — it’s a fad, a pseudoscience, hippy dippy and whatever else the doubting masses may say. But I’m honestly shocked that the lady doesn’t already use them, granted that there are nine people in our family who regularly use essential oils, with a third of them being distributors.

Now that her health is at the forefront of my mind, I can’t wait to see what effects the following essential oils may have on her overall health:

  • basil
  • cassia
  • cinnamon bark
  • clary sage
  • cyprus
  • eucalyptus
  • geranium
  • ginger
  • helichrysum
  • holy basil
  • juniper
  • lavender
  • marjoram
  • ylang ylang

Now, remember Grandma’s also dealing with diabetes, so there are quite a few herbs and supplements that can address that particular condition. I figured I would include that information here, in case any of you are dealing with the same complication. After all, with morbid obesity becoming an epidemic, diabetes numbers are also on the rise.

Herbs for Diabetes

  • aloe vera
  • bitter melon
  • cinnamon
  • fenugreek
  • ginseng
  • gymnema
  • milk thistle
  • turmeric

Supplements for Diabetes

  • chromium
  • psyllium
  • zinc
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Photo by Ethan Sexton on Unsplash

Get out There and Do Something Already

It goes without saying that getting out there and getting active can add to anybody’s quality of life. Eating the cleanest foods and taking the proper medications won’t get the job done if you’re living a completely sedentary life.

I get it, if you’re living with chronic health issues it can be really hard to even find the energy to get any kind of activity in at all. Then there’s the added complication of our stamina during our workouts, not to mention how painful they can be.

Some people are living with health complications that cause them to be completely immobile. Tragically, a handful of those people played a significant hand in their immobility by neglecting their health.

If you’re able to get up and do something, do it. Do anything. It’s totally fine if you have to start small, and I’m talking really small. If all you can manage, starting off, is to walk down the stairs, to the end of the block and back — that’s okay. Doing something, anything is better than doing nothing at all.

Trust me, I know how easy it is to make excuses for ignoring your health. I’ve made such a habit of it that I’ve nearly mastered the art. Finances and debt get in the way, the inability to find a decent doctor gets in the way and the fear of adverse reactions to medications gets in the way.

But at the end of the day, at the very least, we can all be taking the bare minimum holistic measures to lighten the burden we put on our hearts.

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