At a doctor’s visit, Terri Tanner of Woodhaven, Mich., saw that not only was her weight creeping up, her cholesterol was, too. Her doctor advised her to go on a cholesterol-lowering medicine.
Tanner, a 60-year-old retiree, is among the more than 1-in-3 Americans with high blood pressure, and she was already taking meds for that. She didn’t want another pill. She knew she had to change, starting with what — and the way — she was eating.
“I didn’t like those numbers,” she said of her cholesterol counts. She knew that changing her diet could help. “I decided to give it a try.”
Tanner started in the grocery aisles. She stopped buying prepared foods, bought more fresh fruits and vegetables, and became an avid label reader.
In a few months, she dropped 30 pounds. It’s been more than a year, and she’s stuck to her eating plan and kept off most of the weight. Her cholesterol came down, too, and her blood pressure medication dosage was cut in half.
Plenty of research points to the benefits of healthy eating. Others like Tanner have changed their lives doing so. When serious health issues led them to radically alter the way they ate, results were dramatic.
The rules are simple
Cut back on fat and calories.
Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Scale back sodium.
Americans hear those messages almost daily as doctors and other health professionals try to get us to reprogram our habits to lower the risks of cardiovascular and other diseases, control high blood pressure and lower cholesterol.
The American Heart Association says cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. Changing what you eat can help get you off medications and improve your cholesterol and blood pressure numbers.
To do that, Tanner called the changes she made “pretty drastic. That’s what it took.”
Out went processed foods, one of the biggest culprits of over-the-top sodium levels. In came fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats and proteins. Previously, a dinner typically included a packaged item like au gratin potatoes or something out of a can.
“I had to make that change,” Tanner said.
To her surprise, she even broke her habit of dousing salads with dressing — something she never thought she could do. Now she skips dressing entirely. “I really wanted to see if my food choices would make a big difference and, for me, it did,” Tanner said. “I didn’t make the effort to exercise — though I am not downplaying it — but I did make the effort to change my eating.”
It did and still does take more time and effort. And there’s no doubt it costs more, especially when buying fresh fruits and vegetables out of season.
One of the hardest changes for Tanner was not eating after 6 at night. She eats three meals, all before 6 p.m., and drinks plenty of water.
“You have to put yourself first. That’s what motivated me,” Tanner said.
It’s hard to change
Tom Rifai said there’s no question habits can change.
But Rifai, the medical director of metabolic nutrition and weight management at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital in Pontiac, Mich., noted, “It has its challenges. We are in such an overwhelmingly tempting environment.”
Rifai advocates low-sodium dietary methods such as DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). It was developed by the National Institutes of Health with the goal of lowering blood pressure and cholesterol to help lower the risk of other diseases, including heart disease and stroke, according to www.dashdiet.org. It’s a low-sodium plan based on eating significant amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low- or nonfat dairy and lean protein.
In November, U.S. News and World Report ranked DASH its best diet for healthy eating among a list of 20.
Rifai said that following a low-sodium approach can help eliminate medications. “It’s difficult, yes. Can it be done? Yes,” he said.
Among the challenges: Nutrition facts can be hard to find and sodium is hidden in many products.
“Many people know soup is salty, but they have no clue that breads and cereals are, too,” Rifai said.
A sobering vision
The ah-ha moment for Joan Leshley of Lake Orion, Mich., came in 2010, the year she turned 50. Leshley, director of energy services for Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency, was helping her mother fill her daily pill container.
“I had two dozen pills in my hands. And I thought, really?” Leshley said. “I had this vision that this could be me if I didn’t change.”
Leshley had been taking blood pressure medication for three years. She went to a seminar led by Rifai and learned what she needed to do.
“It was going back to the roots of eating fruits and vegetables,” she said. “And another big component was becoming active.”
She started Rifai’s program, joined a gym and worked with a personal trainer. Her blood pressure came down and within six months, she lost 25 pounds and is now off all blood pressure meds.
“At first I was just walking for exercise, and now I can run two to five miles a day,” she said.
“I am healthier now than I was in my 30s,” Leshley said.
40 pounds lighter
For 81-year-old Art Wroble of Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., changes came on Christmas Eve 1998, when he was diagnosed with unstable angina while touring Nepal.
Back home at Henry Ford Hospital, he learned he had two 90 percent blockages in one artery and a 60 percent blockage in another. Stents were put in two of the blockages, and he was encouraged to enter Henry Ford’s heart reversal program.
Wroble dropped 40 pounds and has kept it off, though he still takes blood pressure medication. He works out three hours a day, three days a week, at Henry Ford Hospital’s Center for Athletic Medicine.
And he credits what he eats with staying healthy.
Before his heart issues surfaced, Wroble said he had the typical American diet of processed foods and red meats. “We cut out all the butter and all the saturated fats and red meats,” he said.