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How do you do Thanksgiving after a heart attack?

This post is about making food choices while celebrating Thanksgiving as a heart attack survivor. It can be wrought with a ton of advice, some of which is conflicting in a person’s head, which leads toward fear and self-loathing. However, it does not have to be like that.

So it’s that time of year here in the US. Everyone has their own traditions for the annual feast. From turkey and oyster stuffing, mushroom gravy to cranberry sauce with whiskey, garlic mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pies. The list goes on endlessly. It only increases in options when you think about all the various regional traditions depending on geography.

But what about the situation where you have had a heart attack? Salt, fat, and sugar are the “enemies.” These need to be managed as we redefine our relationship with the dinner plate with a preference for more colorful vegetables and greens. Then you get all sorts of additional recommendations. From the AHA Guidelines to Mediterranean lifestyle all the way over to the low-fat plant-based diets of the Dr’s Ornish and Esselstyn camps. It gets to be, well, a lot to deal with when you simply want to sit down with your family, the people you love, and celebrate together as comfortable as possible.

This year I rented my partner and me a cabin in the backwoods by a lake. Think remote. Campfire cooking. Hiking and stargazing. You get the idea. So yeah, this year, we will be prepping things that we can cook over an open fire outdoors. Probably using a Dutch oven and cast-iron skillet. Still working on the menu. This is, in part, a tit-for-tat because I took us “camping” in New York City the year before last. Or at least that’s what I called it. Anyway, that was the year where I sort of gave myself a break, for what it’s worth, diet-wise.

After my heart attack in 2015, I was terrified. I went full-on vegan and strove to do the low-fat thing, for 3 years. Yet, there I was on 57th street in a hole in the wall diner, we got a fancy hotel in the financial district adjacent to Central Park you see. NYC has a special place in my life. I love the density of people, the never-ending activity like electric current you can almost feel, the smell of the subway, and the sheer magnitude of, well, everything there. We even ended up smack in the middle of the Macy’s parade, which was totally amazing.

So yeah, I was sitting in a diner on 57th street. Watching orders of bagels with cream cheese, capers, tomatoes, and onions going out to other tables. I lamented to my partner that I wanted one but shouldn’t have one. He looked at me and said, “yeah, there’s that, but you really like those, and you are in NYC!” So I ordered one and remembered it to this day as probably one of the best bagels I’ve ever had. Maybe it was the ambiance of the City. I don’t know. But it reminded me of what my dad told me while I lay on the hospital gurney with a shiny new stent in my LAD region. “Son, it’s not the things you do every now and then that will hurt you but the poor ones you do every day that will.”

Thus, I ended my vegan fear-filled “you can cure heart disease” track. It should be noted that sellers of the plant-based diet are the only ones who boldly proclaim that there is a “cure.” While Dr’s say it does have an impact, the risk of yo-yo-ing and on sustainability is high. 

So yeah, a real New York bagel with lox and my vegan lifestyle went up in smoke. Now, mind you, my cholesterol numbers have not budged from sub 100 mg for total cholesterol since then, I keep an eye on that. But if they do, I’ll respond accordingly. So, I allow myself to “indulge” every now and then, well, maybe a couple times a week, really. Just not at every meal. I try to have 20% fat, 30% protein, and 50% veggies/grains as a baseline. Less sugar but a desert when I want one regardless. Wine & beer when I want it and, recently, caffeine-like 3x a week in the form of a good cappuccino.

Thanksgiving is a time for family. Memory. Gratitude. As such, I plan to make things like a breakfast casserole my mom used to make. With whole eggs, sausage, and cheese. I’m not gonna eat the entire thing. I simply find that my life is more full with those things than without. Again, keyword, occasionally.

I no longer want to live in fear. I talk with so many fellow survivors who are stricken with the same mindset post-cardiac event. When someone stops living after surviving a heart attack, well, it’s is an indicator. We need to do a better job of supporting the mental and emotional health of our brothers and sisters. To me, every day, I wake up with breath in my lungs is a day that I want to enjoy and experience what I am lucky enough to be given or to pursue and achieve.

As far as being able to keep things up on a day to day basis. That’s why I, eventually, chose the moderation route over the fool’s gold “diet cure.” Now I mean no disrespect to those who are plant-based. Good for them. For me, however, it’s not as nuanced in my family history, heritage, sustainability, or how I enjoy food at all. I love flavor. All flavors and textures. Plants are great, and a significant part of my plate every day, but it’s not experientially balanced. 

There is no cure for heart disease. Given, the science and understanding of the underlying conditions are continually changing as well. Guidelines, after all, are just that, guidelines. So instead of living in fear and reacting to it, I’m making the choices I’m making. Is it bulletproof? No. But I’ll be damned if I don’t smell some of my childhood excitement when that breakfast casserole comes out of the oven. Or when I stop by a favorite small-town ice cream shop on the way back from a backwoods hike, with my gear in the back of my truck, and get a chocolate shake to go with a shredded chicken sandwich in the summer sun.

Me on top of the world in the Smokies this past year with some buddies hiking some strenuous peaks.
Me on top of the world, in the Smokies, this past year with some buddies while hiking some strenuous mountain peaks.

The picture below is me standing out in front of Patsy’s Restaurant in NYC during that same trip I mentioned earlier. They’ve been doing family-style cooking since 1944, and figures like Frank Sinatra used to hang out here among so many other folks. All I can tell you is this meal was super decadent but absolutely worth the memories of the experience of dining in one of the oldest Italian family joints in NYC.

To try to answer our earlier question about Thanksgiving as a heart attack survivor, though, I say, let your traditions be your guide. Try to find opportunities to put some healthier choices in the mix, but don’t beat yourself up in the process. You know what the guidelines are. If you can hold to those in the format of 80% in line with whatever healthy guideline school of thought you choose and 20% more tailored to what your traditions are, then you are trying. In the end, it’s all we need to invest back into heart disease; let the rest of your time be spent in enjoyment, laughter, and joy. That’s the reason we survived in the first place. To live as full a life as we possibly can with the people we love and who love us.

Now go make some memories and bring a little more love into the world in the process. Without fear and a whole lot of laughter.

Me out front of Patsy's Italian Restaurant in New York City in 2017.
Me out front of Patsy’s during Thanksgiving in New York City in 2017.
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One Comment

  1. This is fantastic. Well done. It will help me!

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