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Eat to Your Heart’s Content

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As I write this story, it’s my birthday, and one thing is clear: I need to make some changes. I can hear the crunch of a thousand Pepperidge Farm cookie crumbs that have fallen into my keyboard. My mouse is sticky with a substance that looks suspiciously like Ben & Jerry’s Oatmeal Cookie Chunk ice cream, my desk stained with an evaporated puddle of spilled cola and random splotches of pizza sauce. The last time I stood up, I found a marshmallow bat from Count Chocula cereal (eaten by the handful straight from the box) clinging to my yoga pants. Really.

The ostensible explanation for my dietary decline is asleep upstairs in his crib: my new baby, Truman. He’s been a source of incredible joy and inspiration—and, in equal measures, fatigue and anxiety. Because of him—and the associated hormone fluctuations and sleepless nights—I’ve been reeling around in a new-mom fog, working hard to preserve and further his health while letting my own go to pieces. Now here I am, six months postpartum—completely exhausted, 20 pounds overweight, and totally stressed out. And my go-to comfort foods are only making things worse.

As I said, things have to change—not only so I’ll feel better but also so I can live to see little Truman grow up. I’m at high risk for heart disease, which runs rampant in my family. First heart attacks tend to strike members of the Dowdle clan somewhere between the ages of 45 and 55 (my dad had his at 46; his dad was dead at 54). I’m turning 41 today. The clock is officially ticking, and it’s time for me to take a hard look at how I’m feeding myself.

An Ounce of Prevention

Writing this story seems as good a way as any to get started. Since I want to do a thorough job, I call the man who is, in my estimation, the ultimate arbiter of the heart-healthy lifestyle: Dean Ornish, M.D. He is the author of Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, a book that—when it was published and widely read in 1990—was among the first medically accepted tomes to promote stress-reducing measures like meditation and yoga as being just as important as diet and exercise in combating heart disease. It helped put yoga on the map as a widely recognized healing art.

The diet Ornish recommends will seem familiar to yoga practitioners, steeped as it is in the teachings of his guru, Swami Satchidananda (the founder of Integral Yoga). By everyday Western standards, however, it is extreme—the “reversal” diet is a strictly vegetarian affair, allowing no more than 10 percent of its total calories to come from dietary fat of any kind. When I call, I expect to hear Ornish take a hard line, but I don’t.

“A common misconception is that I recommend that diet for everyone, but really that’s the pound of cure,” he says. “In truth, we have a whole spectrum of choices. If you’re already sick, you need that pound of cure. If not, you can explore the ounce of prevention.”

A good ounce-of-prevention diet would no doubt look a lot like the one promoted by the American Heart Association, which recommends limiting fats to a much more generous 30 percent of total calories and offers a set of relatively flexible guidelines. Following such a plan isn’t exactly rocket science—you simply eat more plant-based whole foods and try to eliminate most sources of artery-clogging trans and saturated fats. That means, explains Riska Platt, M.S., R.D., a spokesperson for the AHA, that you cut back on or eliminate fried foods, meats, full-fat dairy products, and processed foods while adding lots of fresh produce, whole grains, nuts, fish, and monounsaturated fats (such as those found in walnuts, avocados, and olive oil).

Platt hesitates to recommend specific foods as particularly beneficial—a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is best, she says. But there is one food she’ll happily endorse: legumes. “We don’t eat enough beans in this country,” she says. Beans may reduce the blood levels of homocysteine, another risk factor for heart disease that’s become known in recent years. And the fiber that beans contain can bind cholesterol in the intestinal tract and cause it to be excreted rather than absorbed.

Take the Middle Path

Cholesterol, of course, is inevitable; our bodies actually manufacture the stuff. But you do have to be careful about feeding it into your system and making sure you’re doing all you can to flush out the excess. That means reducing the blood serum levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL, found in saturated fats) and increasing the levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL, found in monounsaturated fats).

LDL cholesterol is responsible for depositing cholesterol on the walls of the arteries, where over time it builds up and creates blockages. (“Think of it like tartar on teeth,” Platt says.) HDL, by contrast, is thought to help usher cholesterol from the peripheral tissues to the liver, where it can be processed and harmlessly excreted from the body.

Trans fats, found in many fried, fast, and processed foods (look for the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients) present the worst of both worlds, says Susan Moores, R.D., a nutrition expert and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Trans fats act like saturated fat, but along with raising blood levels of harmful LDL, they actually reduce levels of protective HDL,” she explains. What’s more, they may promote inflammation, another emerging heart disease risk factor. The three-for-one whammy elicits the following condemnation from Moores: “Trans fats are evil.”

Ornish agrees with Moores’s conclusion but might take exception to her choice of words. “Our whole language about diet has an unhelpful moralistic tone to it,” he says. “We have ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food. We talk about ‘cheatin’ on our diet. And among doctors, we have this fascist attitude toward patient compliance, which is really creepy.”

Ornish feels that by drawing dietary laws in black and white and demanding complete and unquestioning adherence to their recommendations, doctors set their patients up for failure—and, eventually, a prescription for cholesterol-reducing statin drugs, allopathic medicine’s gold-standard treatment.

“Even more than people want to feel healthy, they want to feel that they are in control. As soon as I say they have to do this, or can’t do that, it’s human nature to want to do the opposite,” Ornish says. “The first dietary intervention was when God said, ‘Don’t eat that apple.’ And that clearly didn’t work.”

Rather than embrace absolutes, Ornish, ever the yogi, advocates taking the middle path. “If you indulge yourself one day, then you try to eat healthier the next,” he says. “People who eat the healthiest overall are those who have some indulgences.”

Comfort Me With Apple Pop-Tarts

Unfortunately, I have indulged nearly to the point of no return. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve let things get so far out of hand; after all, I know better. I’ve made a career in the health-promoting media, at magazines like Cooking Light, Natural Health, and Yoga Journal, dispensing advice on crafting a lifestyle that’s heavy on wellness, vitality, and fulfillment—and light on disease, ennui, and trans fats. I’ve practiced yoga and meditation for upwards of 10 years, working hard at finding a little peace and inner quiet. But here I am, fresh out of peace, all tanked up on chocolate-iced cupcakes.

Food has a powerful ability to heal the body and ease the mind. Unfortunately, those two functions don’t always go hand-in-hand. In times of stress and pressure, most of us reach for comfort foods, which tend to run along one of three lines: soft, unchallenging foods, such as pudding or mashed potatoes; high-fat packaged foods that enable mindless binging, like potato chips, French fries, doughnuts, and cookies; and foods that recall a simpler time of life (hello, Count Chocula). There’s plenty of overlap among the three categories—ice cream and mac ‘n’ cheese, two comfort classics, might fill any or all of those bills. But one thing they tend to have in common is that they comfort the mind and spirit at a cost to the body.

“Food is deeply tied to our culture and our emotions, and we retain deep connections with the foods that were used to make us feel better when we were kids, which weren’t necessarily the healthiest ones,” says Mimi Guarneri, M.D., author of The Heart Speaks: A Cardiologist Reveals the Secret Language of Healing and founder of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. “You’d get sick, and mom would bring you ice cream, cake, and all of these other things,” she says. “And when we grow up, that translates into this concept of ‘I had a bad day, so I’m going to treat myself.'”

An occasional treat—as Ornish said—is not such a bad thing, except when it leads to the next…and the next. Vicki Saylor, 45, is familiar with this snowball effect. A research scientist in Lexington, Kentucky, she is a fellow middle-aged woman at high risk for heart disease. Her father died of a heart attack at 51, her mother died during her second attack at 54, and her brother had a double bypass at the tender age of 35.

Saylor eats well overall, focusing on the fresh and organic produce she says keeps her feeling good. But when she does reach for comfort food—macaroni and cheese, potato chips, and “anything pickled” are among her favorites—one nibble rarely does the trick. “I like to combine them,” she says. “If I eat the chips, then I have to have some pickles. Then I have to have something creamy like cheese—and pretty soon it turns into a whole smorgasbord.”

Comfort foods, it seems, will expand to fill a void—or so we hope. “If you’re not filled emotionally and spiritually, you may choose to feel filled physically,” Guarneri says. “You need to ask what is empty that you’re trying to fill up. We have this idea that we can have chocolate cake as a reward, but the only real reward is inner peace. We are on the planet for two reasons: to love and serve others and to realize God. If we work toward realizing those goals, we’re going to shift where our comfort comes from.”

A Whole-Hearted Approach

When I was pregnant with Truman, the doors of my heart’s castle blew wide open for the first time. It’s what I’d spent a decade of yoga and meditation practice working toward, miserably milling about for hours in the icy, wind-swept plain of my intellect, standing on the wrong side of the moat and praying for God to let down the drawbridge. It took a miracle—an everyday one, true, but a miracle nonetheless—for me to finally make my way inside that heavily guarded fortress.

And for a minute, I saw the interconnectedness of all beings, felt the love that underlies our existence. My heart expanded into infinite space. It was excruciatingly beautiful. But my restless mind dragged me back out into the cold, and that’s where I’m stuck now, with my daily course of distractions and discomforts. I looked into the heart of love, then closed the door and grabbed a fork.

Turns out, that’s not so uncommon, says Nischala Joy Devi, author of The Healing Path of Yoga: Time-Honored Wisdom and Scientifically Proven Methods That Alleviate Stress, Open Your Heart, and Enrich Your Life. “When we look at why there’s so much heart disease in our society,” she says, “it’s partly because we’ve forgotten who we are. From a spiritual perspective, that’s what heart disease is: We’ve forgotten that we are divine.”

Devi has made a career out of helping people recover from heart disease. Much of her work has involved healing the spiritual heart—the heart chakra. “The two main aspects of the heart chakra are love and compassion,” she explains. “Ask anyone who’s truly sick and they will tell you that love is the most important thing. But most of the time, we’re too busy to notice.”

In our state of distracted busy-ness, we allow other emotions to take control—ambition, impatience, fear, desire, anger. That last one is a real killer, says Ornish, citing a groundbreaking 2004 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine that formally established the links between heart disease and negative eotional states. “Your mind affects your body for better and worse” says Ornish, who explores the topic in depth in his book Love and Survival. “Loving emotions are associated with healing; anger, hostility, and cynicism are toxic to the heart. Disease begins in the psychological, spiritual, and emotional dimensions long before it manifests in the physical. These are ancient ideas the scientific community is now proving true with its high-cost interventions.”

Temple Wisdom

To really create a life that’s heart healthy, you have to take the broad view of what it means to “nourish” your heart. Good food is important, yes, but it’s equally important to nurture the emotional and spiritual hearts. “We start with the physical body, because we have to remember that our body is our temple,” Guarneri says. “Still, you can eat all the Brussels sprouts you want, but if you’re angry and you don’t feel loved and supported, they aren’t going to heal your heart.”

To “feed” the emotional heart, Devi recommends spending time beholding the beauty of nature, enjoying the company of friends and family, meditating and praying, and taking time to do what you love. For me the best place to foster feelings of love is on my mat.

Did I forget to mention that in the whirlwind of my life, I’ve put my practice on hold? I’ve been endlessly feeding my belly (and hips and thighs), while starving my heart. And so, my birthday gift to myself this year will be a big one, to me and to baby Truman: 30 minutes on the mat, every day. That’s all I need to get centered, to shift my focus to what’s really important, including a healthier approach to food. When I quiet my mind enough, I’ll surely hear that wise inner voice saying, “Less Taco Bell, more Trikonasana.”

Hillari Dowdle has been an editor at Yoga Journal, Natural Health, and Cooking Light.